Friday, January 23, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Back To Back To Skull - Day 4

For the crossover review of this film over at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1982
Director: Juan Piquer Simón
Cast: Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Ian Sera
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

Now's the time where things get really weird. Our fourth collegiate slasher entry for the week - Pieces (aka Mil gritos tiene la noche) - hails from Spain in 1982, by which time slashers had crept over the globe like the invasive kudzu plant. Just like the Canadian slashers before it, Pieces bends over backwards to pretend it's American, to the point where the frame is doused in product placement for Wendy's, American film posters (including 1981's Friday the 13th Part 2), and - my personal favorite - framed photos of Ronald Reagan on the walls.

In spite of this back-breaking effort, the film can't escape a thick sheen of Euro sleaze, for which it benefits more than anything else. Without the strange coloring of a (largely inept) foreign take on the tropes of the genre, Pieces wouldn't be anything more than a typical low-grade campus slasher. But with it? It's still enormously low-grade, that's for sure, but it has enough purely campy or slightly pretty elements to allow it to pass with flying colors.

Four days in, I'm quickly running out of school puns.

Our story begins in "Boston," where young Timmy (Alejandro Hernández) is playing in his toy room with clear intent to transition into playing with himself, once he finishes his naughty naked lady puzzle. When his mother catches him and smashes a mirror in rage (she's so angry, she even smashes it again in slow motion), he surprises her with a an axe to the skull and a bit of post-mortem sawing to boot. Cut to 40 years later on an unnamed Boston campus in Madrid.

When a mysterious killer shown only in silhouette begins murdering co-eds around campus and removing parts of them with a chainsaw, it soon becomes clear that his wicked intent is to stitch together into a sort of Frankenstein sex doll. As healthy young women drop like flies (but not before baring their breasts) and the killer puts the bloody puzzle from his childhood back together piece by piece, police spy/tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George of Mortuary) is enlisted by Lt. Bracken (Christopher "Mr. Lynda" George, also of Mortuary and Graduation Day) and Sgt. Holden (Frank Braña) to masquerade as a tennis coach on campus and work with the Dean (Edmund Purdom of Don't Open Till Christmas) to try and track down the mysterious madman.

The suspects include Professor Brown (Jack Taylor of Edge of the Axe), a closeted homosexual and anatomy professor - it's a toss-up as to which makes him more sinister; Willard (Paul L. Smith), the creepy groundskeeper with an affinity for chainsaws and being in the wrong place at the wrong time - think of him as a more pervy Hagrid; and Kendall (Ian Sera), the campus lothario whose girlfriend becomes the second victim at the school swimming hole. His alibi for not being at the pool where she told him to meet her so they could have sex? He was busy banging a different chick he found on the way over. Later in the film, a girl squeals with pleasure before he even touches her and, when admonished for making so much noises, eagerly suggests that he could gag her. The police decide that this horny Romeo is much too slick and awesome to be the killer, so they immediately enlist him to aide Mary in her investigation, no questions asked. 

It's good to be the king.

Pieces is well-liked by the horror crowd, but only as a Troll 2-esque trash gem, so why don't we try a little counter-programming and begin with what's good about it? This won't take long.

The best thing about the film is by far its cinematography. Aside from having the dusky romantic glow of a cheap foreign film processed through about a dozen different formats, the imagery is largely well-composed, with special focus on the power of shadow. Especially in the aerobics hall scene, light and shadow is used to suggest movement and project sinister intentions. Small points of light in the darkness bear the most visual information of some scenes, making subtle implications rather than straightforward statements.

Wasn't that fun? Now, on to the bad stuff.

There's plenty where that came from.

Although the film is a little too repetitive and has a lethargically stately pace, there are moments of pure bad-good camp gold littered throughout that make it all worthwhile. It starts off small, with little moments like Kendall reading a note in the library where the voiceover is whispering. But before long, the movie cuts loose and rams full speed into moments like the killer hiding a chainsaw behind his back in an elevator, cops shooting the hinge off a door, and - a perennial favorite - Lynda Day George channeling the forceful energy of every damsel ever tied to the railroad tracks to cleave the heavens in two with a rapturous, thunderous cry of "BASTARD!"

Along with these scattered treasures (I won't even mention the ending), the entire film is blessed with an otherworldly patina by the just barely out-of-sync dubbing and the dialogue which was clearly written by people with a less than workable knowledge of the English language and performed as if it were the first time the lines were being read*

The pinnacle of these scrappable scriptural moments is when a police officer thanks a records employee by saying "I'll send you a case of lollipops," but there's plenty of instant classics like "Don't tell me I'm the bearer of bad news, I could kill myself," "We don't have any more time. Take some uppers or something," and a girl flirting with a professor by asking where her pectorals are. The rest of the script is made up of odd non sequiturs or responses that are just one degree off from real human speech, like when I've just woken up and groggily answer "How did you sleep?" with "Thank you." It's really more like a group of humans talking at one another than legitimate, organic dialogue, and it is purely fascinating. 

*The actors (who are of a piece equally inept, though several of the minor female classmates are the most insidiously horrendous) begin each line with no clear idea how it will end, shifting allegiances and enunciations with unsteady bravura halfway through. Even the climactic discovery is bungled, with the police declaring the identity of the murderer like it was their coffee order.

Caption Contest: What do you think Willard says in this scene?

While the dialogue and presentation are deliciously fun, the mystery at the center of Pieces is a muddled affair, with halfhearted but admirably persistent red herrings forming most of the B-story while nameless nubile women are chopped up at every turn. Each kill is preceded by about two minutes of sexy scene-setting, whether it be sexy swimming, sexy aerobics, or two full rounds of sexy tennis. And although many of the murders aren't spectacularly bloody thanks to budgetary limitations, given the context what is shown (a girl peeing herself in fear, a stabbing on a water bed, some splashy geysers of blood) is palpably, unavoidably misogynistic.

The slasher genre is never more than two steps away from uncomfortable gender relations, but in Pieces it's hard to ignore. The killer's sexual neurosis is exploited rather than explored in any meaningful way, and Mary - the one lady cop - is wimpy and malleable, melting like a Drumstick on the kitchen counter (don't ask, the wound's still fresh) whenever something violent happens. On top of that, the victims aren't even characters. They exist solely as the film's pound of flesh with no personality traits or affectations, just a heap of skin and a scream.

Pieces is still a fun watch, but between the duller moments and the griminess of its exploitation, you're gonna have to grit your teeth to get through it. It's absolutely worth checking out for any fan of the best of the worst cinema has to offer, especially if you're looking for gems with less airtime than films like The Room or Troll 2. So I suppose the overall net worth is positive, but not by a wide enough margin to really be proud of.

Killer: Charlie Chainsaw [The Dean (Edward Purdom)]
Final Girl: Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George) sort of.
Best Kill: Virginia Palmer is abruptly decapitated with a chainsaw in the quad in broad daylight. Nobody seems to care.
Sign of the Times: We have the distinct pleasure of watching a solid two minutes of aerobics (oh how the 80's loved their rhythmic exercises) to a song that sounds like a robot trying to sing disco.
Scariest Moment: The kettle abruptly goes off while [the Dean is spiking Mary's coffee with Evil Drugs.]
Weirdest Moment: When Mary is creeping around the campus, a Bruce Lee impersonator leaps out of nowhere, attacks her with martial arts, then immediately falls to the ground, asleep. When Kendall shows up, he explains that it's just his kung fu professor, who then wakes up and claims he ate bad chop suey, so he must have blacked out.
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.
  1. Timmy's Mom is axed in the head and decapitated.
  2. Virginia Palmer is decapitated with a chainsaw.
  3. Jenny is drowned with a pool net and dismembered offscreen.
  4. Mary has her arm cut off with a chainsaw.
  5. Sylvia is stabbed to death on a waterbed.
  6. Tennis girl is chainsawed in half.
  7. [The Dean is shot in the head.
TL;DR: Pieces is an absurd mess of a slasher with enough outrageous campy moments to make it noteworthy but only to the most minimal degree.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1657

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I've seen this one!

    You know, we made fun, but have either of us ever had simultaneous access to a water bed and pot? For all we know, that gal really is 100% right.