Pieces was the product of contributions from at least three countries—that we know of. It was written by an Italian and an American (Roberto Loyola and Dick Randall), directed by a Spaniard (Juan Piquer Simón), and the cast was made up of actors from all three countries. Its title in Spanish is Mil gritos tiene la noche (The Night has 1,000 screams). Aside from being taken straight from The Big Book of Generic Giallo Titles, it doesn’t fit the film very well; it’s way too subtle, for one thing. Pieces is a much better, far more apt title.
Though mostly filmed in Valencia, Spain, the film is set in Boston (I mean, really, who could tell the difference?). In fact, the film opens on a flashback to what an on-screen caption boldly declares is “Boston, 1942.” Once our setting is established, the film wastes no time getting to its inciting incident: a young boy axing his mother to death after she berates him for playing with a puzzle featuring a nude woman. Once she is thoroughly dead, which he ensures by also dismembering her with a handsaw, he continues piecing the puzzle together until the cops show up and he plays innocent by hiding in the closet. From this auspicious start, things only get crazier and more improbable.
Selling the Sizzle
But, before we even get into the movie itself, the best place to start a discussion of Pieces is its trailer and poster. Exploitation films—and Pieces is an exploitation film par excellence—represent the purest distillation of film marketing, something they achieve by stripping away things like subtlety and any pretense of artistry in favor of unalloyed sensationalism. Of course, the mantra of all movie marketing—spoken or not—is “Get asses in seats.” Exploitation films are simply more upfront about it. As such, the trailers and posters for exploitation films are among the most shining examples of bald-faced luridness and hyperbole pop culture has to offer. The trailer and poster for Pieces are, thankfully, no exception.
Really, what more can I say about this trailer? I suppose only that you should feel free to watch it again in case you missed the title of the movie (it’s Pieces, by the way). As good as the trailer is, the poster might be even better. One of the things exploitation films lived and died by was their taglines, and the poster for Pieces has not just one great tagline but two. Of course, words alone do not an ace exploitation movie poster make; the visuals are absolutely key. And the Pieces poster is truly a feast for the eyes, with its giant chainsaw (which, for some reason, is just resting on a table) and stitched-up female corpse.
One other thing I would point out here is the warning: “Absolutely no one under 17 admitted to this performance.” It’s odd to refer to a movie as a “performance,” since that suggests something live, like a play. Though I’m sure this was just a case of unusual, slightly inapt word choice, I like the idea of viewing Pieces as some type of outré performance art piece.
A Real Piece of Kitsch
Perhaps the best way I can concisely describe Pieces is this: Pieces is what I imagine people who don’t know anything about slasher movies think slasher movies are; Pieces is that but turned up to 11…hundred. I suspect that most people who are unfamiliar with the slasher subgenre just assume that the majority of—if not all—slasher films are extremely gory, unapologetically sleazy, and profoundly stupid.
In my experience, the bulk of slashers are merely kind of gory, slightly sleazy, and unremarkably stupid (some, in fact, aren’t even all three at the same time; for example, some are just gory and stupid, or sleazy and stupid.) Take your average Friday the 13th entry, for example. While some are gorier than others, none is really that gory. And while one could argue that all of them are at least a little stupid, only a few really approach truly dangerous levels of stupidity. Finally, few are actually that sleazy (Part V is by far the sleaziest of the bunch).
Pieces, on the other hand, combines gore, sleaze, and stupidity to staggering effect. While there are slashers that may equal it on one of these fronts, I can think of none that measure up in all three. The Prowler and The Mutilator may be close in terms of gore, but neither is as sleazy. Blood Rage is very stupid but not quite as mind-bogglingly stupid. Maniac might be as sleazy, but it’s not really that stupid.
And so it is that Pieces, by aiming lower, stands tall among its slasher brethren. In a subgenre that frequently teetered on self-parody, Pieces distinguishes itself by being as close as a slasher film—perhaps any film, for that matter—can come to being self-parody without actually being self-parody.
And this last point is critical. I firmly believe that no one involved in the making of Pieces had their tongue anywhere near their cheek and that the elements of Pieces that border on self-parody (which is to say most of the movie) absolutely do so unintentionally. If I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t enjoy the film as much as I do—in fact, I might not enjoy it at all. If I thought Pieces was just the filmmakers having a laugh, I wouldn’t care much for it.
However, since I believe that everything in Pieces is the product of the filmmakers’ genuine efforts to make a good movie, I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by the wonderful alchemy that can occur when earnest intentions meet ineptitude and misguided ambition. Sometimes, this results in merely a conventionally bad movie. But sometimes, if we’re lucky, it results in something as transcendentally bats*hit insane as Pieces.
When Mary Met Chao
One of the film’s most well-known scenes and a prime example of just how deeply odd Pieces is involves the film’s female protagonist, undercover cop/professional tennis player Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George), being accosted by a tracksuit-wearing martial artist. In a film full of WTF moments (really, it’s almost exclusively WTF moments), this may be the most WTF of all, namely because it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It is a bizarre little non-sequitur; a brief, strange interlude. Its utter lack of both rhyme and reason is almost sublime.
As it turns out, the “reason” for the inclusion of this scene is that the producer of Pieces was also making a kung fu movie at the same time and figured he’d get in a bit of cross-promotion by having the knockoff Bruce Lee star of that movie make a brief appearance in Pieces. And I mean, really, that’s as good a reason for inserting a scene into a movie as I’ve ever heard.
Men, Women, and a Chainsaw
Pieces, in case you didn’t know—and I guess I haven’t yet explicitly stated so—is about a chainsaw-wielding killer sawing up co-eds on a college campus, often in broad daylight and in public spaces. The killer also has a strange habit of just leaving his chainsaw lying around when he’s not using it. The absolute best instance of this comes after the murder of a woman whose nude swim in the campus pool is interrupted by our killer. After apparently fishing her out with a pool skimmer and then making short, messy work of her with his chainsaw, he leaves the chainsaw at the scene of the crime!
In one of the film’s best moments of brilliant police work, the lead detective, spotting the chainsaw, asks the university’s anatomy professor if it might be the murder weapon. Hmm, yes, could the chainsaw just chilling out here poolside possibly be connected to the bloody pile of viscera that used to be a woman’s body? Hard to say. Better send it to the lab! Although they skip even this basic step of the investigative procedure since the killer still very much has the chainsaw later in the film. It’s good that he does though because if he didn’t we wouldn’t have the pleasure of seeing him use it to kill another woman in an elevator after hiding the chainsaw behind his back!
The killer’s choice of a chainsaw as a murder weapon is absolutely integral to Pieces and its whole deliriously bonkers aesthetic. Outside of the opening murder by ax and one murder by knife later in the film, it is the chainsaw that does the bulk of the work in Pieces, which features no less than four deaths by chainsaw. In fact, there’s probably more actual death by chainsaw in Pieces than in any of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films.
Despite what I think is a common misconception, chainsaws don’t actually show up that often as murder weapons in slasher films. For instance, a chainsaw makes an appearance in two Friday the 13th entries (Part 2 and Part V), but as a weapon used by the final girl, not against her.
The appeal of the chainsaw as a murder weapon is obvious: it’s big, it’s loud, and even when it’s not on it looks intimidating. However, in most cases, it makes little to no sense as a murder weapon, namely because it is big and loud. And while the makers of slasher films weren’t typically known for adhering to the dictates of common sense, it would seem even they realized that a chainsaw as a murder weapon just might strain credulity a bit too much.
Leatherface chasing Sally through the dark woods of rural Texas is one thing, but a killer armed with a chainsaw sneaking around offing people one by one is quite another. Thankfully, it seems the makers of Pieces were not merely averse to following the dictates of common sense, but that they lacked even a basic awareness of said dictates.
The A-Team…Well, a Team
However, the killer’s choice of weapon is far from the only head-scratching choice in Pieces. As noted, the female protagonist of Pieces is a detective and a professional tennis player. Also, despite being a professional tennis player, she is clearly terrible at tennis. This fact is evidenced by an oddly extended scene depicting the worst tennis match in the history of the world, during which Mary and her opponent barely keep a volley going whilst the crowd follows along as if they were watching the finals at Wimbledon.
While the two male detectives, Lightly Soiled Harry and faux Frank Drebin (Christopher George and Frank Braña, respectively) are heavily featured in the film, the bulk of the “police work” is done by Det. Billie Jean King and…a student at the college named Kendall (Ian Sera), an affable dork and unlikely ladies’ man. Inexplicably, nearly every woman in the film cannot help but succumb to his raw sexual magnetism. In fact, we first meet Kendall in the college library where he receives a note from a female student inviting him to the pool for some aquatic hanky-panky.
Yes, the police in this film actually recruit a college student with absolutely no connection either to law enforcement or to any of the victims, and with no special knowledge pertaining to the crimes, to take on a rather large and very active role in their investigation into a series of ongoing murders.
The reasoning for this seems to go no further than “Hey, you’re a student here. Would you mind helping us catch this chainsaw-wielding maniac?” Seriously, the amount of responsibility handed over to this kid just willy-nilly is alarming. The film stops just short of having the cops literally hand him a gun and a badge. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere there’s a deleted scene of an impromptu ceremony during which they make him an honorary deputy or some such thing.
Et Tu, Bluto?
Since Pieces is nominally a whodunnit, it offers us red herrings. The reddest of herrings by far here is the custodian/groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, who played Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye). This character is possibly the worst red herring ever. We are so clearly meant to think he is the murderer—namely because he looks like a giant murderer—that there is absolutely no way that he could ever, ever actually be the murderer, which of course he isn’t.
In spite of this, and for apparently no reason other than the fact that he looks like a giant murderer, he is at one point set upon by several cops whom he proceeds to toss around like ragdolls. (Clearly, the cops in Valencia/Boston do not eat their spinach and thus are not strong to the finish.)
Waterbed at Local College Ruined; Journalist Brutally Murdered
While there are too many gems to recount here, one of the most memorable lines from Pieces is delivered by a female student upon hearing that the college has “installed a waterbed in the training room,” after which she declares that “The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and f*cking on a waterbed at the same time.” While I cannot personally attest to the accuracy of this statement, it does bring up some questions. Namely, what kind of training room is this and why does it need a waterbed? I’m no fitness guru, but any “training” that involves a waterbed sounds like bullsh*t to me.
Anyway, putting these questions aside, the waterbed will make a key appearance later in the film. In fact, the waterbed ends up playing an important part in one of the few scenes in Pieces that stands out for actually—shockingly—being kind of…good. Who knew that an unintentionally hilarious, seemingly extraneous bit of dialogue would actually be an instance of subtle foreshadowing?!
The death of a reporter investigating the murders at the college is a highlight of the film. This kill—in which a woman is stabbed by the killer while on a waterbed—is one of only two in the film that doesn’t involve a chainsaw. The other kills in the film, while certainly grotesque and memorable, are so ludicrously over the top that it’s difficult to take them seriously.
The waterbed scene, however, while still very much a spectacle, is different. It’s more drawn out for one thing. Additionally, though it is done in a fairly stylized way, it’s more realistic than the other murders—namely because someone being stabbed to death is just inherently more plausible than someone being dismembered by a chainsaw.
While it is an admittedly low bar, this is by far the most visually impressive scene in the film. While it doesn’t quite approach the “violence as art” level of filmmakers like Argento and Fulci, it nevertheless has a certain aesthetic flair that is almost entirely absent from the rest of the film. Rather than the waterbed being merely incidental, here the director actually uses it to create what is probably the film’s one truly memorable set-piece.
As the victim is stabbed repeatedly and the knife punctures the mattress, blood and water splash and mix, turning the bed into a bloody pool in which the victim futilely thrashes before receiving the final, fatal stab in a particularly gruesome fashion. The scene takes place in slow motion, which adds greatly to its effectiveness by allowing us to see details like the light glinting off the splashes of blood and water.
Stay Classy, Pieces
Anyway, after this brief interruption of competence bordering on artfulness, it’s back to the film’s preferred mode of “balls to the wall/brains and good taste out the window” filmmaking. The film’s next kill involves obnoxiously loud marching band music and cross-cutting, the latter of which is clearly designed to heighten the tension of the scene but…doesn’t.
In the only instance of the killer recognizing that a chainsaw is very loud and might draw attention, he blasts some John Philip Sousa over a loudspeaker, effectively drowning out the sound of his chainsaw. With the appropriately boisterous tunes providing much-needed cover, he proceeds to chainsaw his next victim.
Before she is sawed in half though, we first get to see her naked in the shower. This is, of course, par for the course. However, what is decidedly not par for the course is that we also get to see her pee her pants in close-up as the killer chainsaws through a door. Now, do we need to see her pee her pants in order to know she’s terrified? Hardly. Do we want to see her pee her pants? I should certainly hope “we” don’t. But see it we do, because that’s just the kind of movie Pieces is.
Anyway, the best thing about this kill is that it leads directly to one of the absolute best line deliveries in movie history, in which Mary not once, not twice, but thrice screams “Bastard!” Each scream also gets increasingly louder, threatening to overwhelm the film’s wonky sound mixing.
Pieces de résistance
From this point on in the film, some other stuff happens; namely, we find out the identity of the killer—as if anyone watching gives a rat’s ass. It turns out it’s the crusty old dean, a fact that seems to be ascertained rather quickly once Kendall has the brilliant idea that the killer might be a faculty member so perhaps it would make sense to do a background check on faculty at the college. While this one eureka moment represents the bulk of Kendall’s actual contribution to the investigation, it no doubt speaks to the impeccable judgment of the police in enlisting the help of this inexperienced, untrained college student.
Anyway, none of that really matters; what matters is what happens after the detectives show up to the dean’s apartment just in time to save Mary from his evil clutches by putting a bullet in his head. At this point there are only a few minutes left in the film, so surely not much can happen, right? Wrong!
As Kendall and the detectives search the dean’s apartment, someone leans on a bookshelf that spins around to reveal a sewn-together female corpse (from the poster, remember?!) that immediately falls on top of Kendall. Shaken (but not stirred), Kendall goes to grab his jacket on his way out of the apartment, at which point the hand of the sewn-together corpse reaches up and grabs him by the crotch, tearing through his jeans and into his delicate man parts. The film ends on a freeze-frame of the hand clenching Kendall’s now ruined manhood and Levi’s in a death grip, as we hear the echoing of his screams.
Now, the first of these “Gotcha!” moments at least makes sense—there had to be some reason the killer was collecting female body parts, right? And the nudie puzzle that set this whole chain of events in motion—the one we see at the very beginning and then periodically throughout the movie—also had to come back into play, so a human puzzle-woman being the end product of all this chainsawing makes sense. But, said puzzle-woman suddenly reanimating to carry out a crude, impromptu castration from beyond the grave? How?…Why?…What?
Are we to believe that the dean has brought this corpse to life à la Dr. Frankenstein? Or that the corpse has somehow just come back to life of its own accord? Prior to this moment, there had been absolutely no suggestion of anything supernatural in the film; nor had there been any inkling of weird science being afoot (plenty of weirdness, sure, but none of the scientific kind).
Of course, the obvious explanation is that no thought whatsoever was put into the logic of the ending. All that mattered was the all-important final jump scare, a slasher staple that started with the original Friday the 13th (which itself ripped it off from Carrie, naturally). The difference here is that in Friday the 13th, the jump scare—which is admittedly quite good—is immediately revealed to be a dream.
Even in The Prowler, which features one of the worst, most nonsensical instances of the last-minute jump scare, it’s a hallucination. Not so in Pieces, though; instead, we are left only to assume that the reanimated corpse of the dean’s puzzle-woman does in fact destroy Kendall’s junk in one fell swoop, thus prematurely ending his days as a sexual conquistador.
Theirs Not to Reason Why
Of course, on the one hand, such brazen contempt for basic elements like logic and continuity could be something we hold against a film—often, it is. But, with Pieces, probably because it already has such a tenuous grasp on these elements to begin with, I don’t mind that at the very end of the movie—literally in the final seconds—it disregards them entirely purely in the interest of sending the audience home with one last shock. And never mind that said shock instantly and inexplicably shifts the film into an entirely different mode in a bit of utterly confounding generic (or at least subgeneric) whiplash.
And that to me seems the very essence of exploitation filmmaking: to ask not, “Why would we do this?” (or “Should we do this?”), but rather, “What if we do this?” And then, before anyone can even start to answer the question, just go ahead and do it. Were it not for such boldness of spirit on the part of exploitation filmmakers, a spirit which might best be described—to quote The Simpsons‘ Arnie Pye in the Sky—as “never-give-up, never-think-things-out,” a film like Pieces simply wouldn’t exist. And I believe the world would be just the least bit poorer for it.