Mil gritos tiene la noche (A Thousand Terrors Has the Night)
In the spirit of October masquerade fun, now comes the crossover between this here webzone and Brennan Klein's Popcorn Culture, just about the best blog you could ever read, and even better if you're a horror aficionado! From now till Halloween, I'll be wearing the mask of someone who actually knows shit about the slasher genre, while Brennan will (far more ably) review some spooky 1950s science fiction! Join us! Or I'll be forced to use even more exclamation points!
1982 Espana/1983 USA
Directed by Juan Piquer Simon
Written by Dick Randall, Joe D'Amato (as John Shadow), and Juan Piquer Simon
With Ian Sera (Kendall), Linda Day George (Officer Mary Riggs), Christopher George (Lt. Bracken), Frank Brana (Sgt. Holden), Paul Smith (Willard), William Taylor (Prof. Brown), and Edmund Purdom (the Dean)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Boston, 1942. A young lad is enjoying the most inefficient delivery mechanism for pornographic content imaginable by piecing together a jigsaw puzzle image of a nude woman. His mother catches him, and in a fit of puritanism she not only destroys his puzzle right before he was about to get to the good parts (a nearly non-pornographic representation of mere bush, it turns out), but she ransacks his room and finds all his dirty pictures. Before she can make good on her promise of burning them, he takes an axe to her head. Forty years later, a pair of gloved hands has again turned to the task of putting together the blood-splattered jigsaw. In case you forgot, the name of this movie is Pieces; there is very little that can't be predicted about the killer's MO and ultimate goal simply on the basis of these facts already established—"It's exactly what you think it is!", indeed.
Except that was not, by necessity, true. What was very worrying, if really only for a moment, was that Pieces would be one of those slasher films: the ones that really can't be categorized as slasher films in any helpful way, but instead invest deeply in their cod Freudianism to cover for their scummy exploitation—or maybe it's the other way around. In other words, I thought it might be like that depressing character study, Maniac. Instead, as I was pleasantly surprised, it was more like that nasty black comedy, Maniac.
The opening scene is already only about a half-step away from being an over-the-top wish-fulfillment fantasy for every kid who had their only dirty magazine taken away by a parent (as Will Smith famously observed, they just don't understand porn). Only the severe onscreen gore of the kill prevents it from being taken purely as a joke. Yet it is shocking and rather ludicrously conceived enough to be entertaining. In that regard, Pieces adopts its own weird, heightened tone even more quickly than Maniac '13 did.
You know, the truly funny thing is, depending on the angle, I bet axes probably really would occasionally just bounce right off of a human skull.
Once the shots of those gloved hands fingering the jigsaw pieces start getting cross-cut with a woman on a primitive skateboard careening into a mirror being transported across the street, in true Wile E. Coyote-style, genre classifications come untethered and pretty much stay so for the rest of the film. Except, there is one movie it reminded me of—and it's not a purse, it's European.
Pieces was a Spanish production, but with script input by none other than Joe D'Amato, director/writer/etc. of approximately one billion Italian exploitation movies, often with the word "prostitute" or "cannibal" in their titles; and though I base this on too few data points for it to be a definitive statement of anything, it's obvious that director Juan Piquer Simon liked gialli films and loved Suspiria. Not that Pieces is an audiovisual accomplishment on that level—its use of light and color in some scenes is outstanding, but as a whole it looks like any reasonably well-heeled slasher picture that happened to somehow convince a good-looking university to let them shoot there over break.
Nevertheless, between a significant number of self-conscious art shots and an absolutely raging score, the comparison is there to be drawn. On the plot level, Pieces is substantially more sensical, though this is not so much a low bar as it is a subterranean one. It's probably simply better to say that "on a plot level, Pieces makes pretty much perfect sense, unless it's using a scene as an excuse to feature a deranged cameo by Brucesploitation actor, Bruce Le [sic]."
This isn't some kind of thought experiment, chum. That happens.
In the present of 1982, we find ourselves on an unnamed college campus that is virtually deserted, leading one to believe instead that it takes place in a utopian 2022, where children have finally realized that the liberal arts education is a scam designed to separate them from their potential and place them in lifelong debt servitude at Starbucks. Alternatively, "extras" were a luxury Pieces could not afford. Either way, the presence of more than twenty students and staff on this campus would have gotten in the way of the actual point of Pieces, which is to have a man in a film noir costume carve women up with a loud piece of lawncare equipment.
More on that later.
By kill no. 2, the film stakes out a tenuous position in or around "police procedural", basically giallo territory—the unschooled writer finds easier comparisons with Silence of the Lambs or Zodiac, though God knows the unschooled writer realizes how unbelievably stupid that sounds. A couple of detectives carry on an investigation; women are murdered; rinse and repeat for a while. Atmosphere along with a few suspects gets generated—although the film simply cannot exonerate its two (2) red herrings soon enough. One is a creepy, hulking groundskeeper, Willard, whose villainous squinting would make even Paul Leni ask the fellow to dial it back, and he simply isn't the killer unless he can both teleport and shapeshift, although this would hardly be beyond the pale for slasher villains. The other is Prof. Brown, a potentially Evil Gay stereotype, who is a lot less obviously Evil, but teaches anatomy (an Evil profession). However, by about his fifth minute he's around, we learn he lives with his mother in a presumptively non-Batesy fashion, and he doesn't seem repressed so much as faintly oppressed, anyway. So, if you're paying close attention to the content of the ridiculously stilted dubbing (and the routinely insipid dialogue so delivered), rather than simply being entertained by the colossal ineptitude of it, you'll realize that there aren't any serious suspects at all, unless we're being outright lied to. We're not, and that's to Pieces' immense credit; but it's a little odd that it's constructed as a mystery and even feels like mystery, despite the hollowness of its mystery tropes.
Eventually, our protagonist—campus heartthrob Kendall—is enlisted as a junior G-man to gather information and generally keep an eye on the other
But what's this? Incest themes? In a slasher film? The innovation is humbling!
It's actually Kendall who saves the day, doing so with nothing less than document review—something that kind of forces me to love this movie, and I guess that makes it more like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—finally discovering in the midst of his diligence a lead that takes him directly to the killer's door.
The climax of Pieces veers into the legitimately creepy for the first time in the film, after 75 minutes of goofy bullshit punctuated by gore-shocks that are vastly more technically impressive than they are scary. But, thanks to the permanently deformed tone, it manages to work: the twist, such as it is a twist, is not of the Dumbassed variety; and the killer becomes—strangely only once he is unmasked and personified, and only once he has put down his chainsaw—a force of genuine threat and plausible terror. It even ends (and the film itself damned well should have) with an exceptionally effective jump scare, revealing the killer's work—something we've known, intellectually, since the title card, but are quite unprepared to witness.
The final sequence is seriously marred only by continuing on after this point, and indulging in a profoundly idiotic variation on Carrie's infamous stinger—which, by failing to frame it as a dream, bizarrely suggests that despite his madness, the killer nonetheless really is some kind of Goddamned Modern Prometheus. (On a more cosmetic note, in the climax the score gets really weird, but less the good kind of weird, bringing in some Eurocrap version of a hard rock motif that has never heretofore been present, evidently meant to represent "outrageous suspense." It... functions, I suppose?) I also demerit Pieces ever-so-slightly by the sad fact that, in a film that has been absolutely content to wallow in atrocious violence against women, it couldn't go the full Tarantino and relieve Mary of her beautiful, beautiful feet, which would have been perfect on the film's own kind-of-repugnant terms.
So: how about that violence against women! Let's start with a compliment: Pieces—being foreign—was not subject to the chilling effect that had struck slashers down in the Anglosphere by 1982; thus its kills are bloody good, especially if you exempt the mother's death, which as noted suffers from some teensy staging problems, and even that's exceptionally syrupy.
But something occurred me as woman after woman ate it in Pieces—every other slasher film I've seen, including Maniac, throws in at least token male victims. Whenever I've sampled the genre, it's this fact that has gently smoothed over its misogynistic reputation. "Sure," I say, "Frank Zito is a sex murderer. But he blew off Tom Savini's head too! There's a real attempt at representational equality here!" (In My Bloody Valentine and Terror Train, more men die than women!) Other than the killer himself, no man dies in Pieces. It's not helped that almost every kill is preceded by a few minutes of softcore pornography. If there's no apparent goal of punishing sluts, it's because only like two of the victims get audible names or lines or even actions beyond "existing as a living woman, with breasts and a vagina and everything." The kills, I've said, are each individually over-the-top enough (and poorly acted enough) to be fun—and the near-parodic titillation that precedes each kill sequence can be enjoyed as a silly relic of the times—but once the women are stacked, in number, and quite literally like cordwood, it becomes a little disturbing. It's not so much a "murder is genuinely awful" feeling, ala Maniac or Zodiac or whatever, because that was never going to happen with a movie this frivolous. Instead, it's a suspicion that this film could be enjoyed far too much by the exactly wrong kind of person, who thinks it's cool when women die, rather than the progressive viewer, who thinks it's cool when humans die. Wait, I'm not sure I phrased that right.
On the other hand, Pieces was made before porn as we now know it existed, and we simply can't forget that it's incredibly likely that this might well have been the only time that month in 1982 when Johnny Slasherfan got to see boobs in motion. Further, this is also the only slasher I've seen that has an actual penis in it, rather than some kind of metaphor, and that's Europe for you. It's not even weird to them! I have one and it's still weird to me!
Killer: [The Dean].
Final Girl: Largely inapplicable, but Mary.
Best Kill: Early on it's set up that there's a waterbed at the gym (it's European). Entirely Chekhovian in nature, the bed—a blue bed—is the site of the artiest kill in the film, when the murderer, eschewing his chainsaw for a moment, stabs a woman to death upon it, puncturing it with his knife, and the blood and flooding water mix in delirious slow motion.
Sign of the Times: A disco workout in leggings that occupies two solid minutes (at least) of the film's runtime. (I checked again. There are, in fact, two of these sequences: Johnny Slasherfan is overdrawn at the spank bank and he needs this.)
Alternative Sign of the Times: Kendall's extremely period-specific hot hotness.
Scariest Moment: When [the Dean] tells Mary that "I'm strong" just as [the paralytic he's given her starts to take effect].
Weirdest Moment: The bride of Frankenstein scene should be and in any other movie would be, but it's really the entire bit with Bruce Le, which includes Kendall's line, "Hey, it's my kung fu professor! What's the story, Chops?" His explanation does not include a rationale for attacking Mary with martial arts. It's maybe the strangest false jump scare in horror history.
Special runner-up!: this well-appointed piece of oak is the door to a locker room.
Champion Dialogue: "The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a water bed at the same time."
Body Count: 7, including the killer
- Mom learns a valuable lesson about respecting personal property, delivered by ax and reinforced by hacksaw.
- "The Palmer girl," allegedly named "Virginia," is chainsawed (in broad daylight, in the quad, where other people also fuck, apparently).
- "Jenny," dirtying the pool with her sexy sex, is half-drowned by a pool scoop, is pulled out, and is chainsawed.
- "Mary," not the cop, fails to find love in the elevator, fails to notice a chainsaw poorly-concealed behind the killer's back, and is chainsawed.
- Sylvia, a hardnosed reporter I didn't mention in the review because she's an objet d'art, not a character, is stabbed to death on a waterbed, and is subsequently chainsawed.
- An unnamed tennis player, too tuckered out to actually run, is caught in the shower room, involuntarily urinates upon herself (yay), and is chainsawed.
- The killer is shot in the head
The old switcheroo!
Brennan's Cardboard Science:
Invaders From Mars
The Day the Earth Stood Still
My Census Bloodbath:
My Bloody Valentine