Terror Trash: Pieces (1982)

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Terror Trash: Pieces (1982)

Terror Trash is an ongoing series celebrating and delighting in some less-than-sterling entries in the horror film genre. After several years of highlighting great films in our Century of Terror and ABCs of Horror series, it’s time for a loving appraisal of some decidedly more trashy, incompetent, or enjoyably cheesy material.

As someone born in the late 1980s, it’s difficult for me to imagine what it must have been like to be an established teenage or twentysomething horror movie fan during this particular era. What was it like to actually have been embedded in the golden era of the slasher movie, in the first half of the 1980s? Did they seem as utterly omnipresent at the time as they now appear to be in any big retrospective of the genre? Were horror geeks of the day ecstatic to have so much cinematic bloodletting at their disposal, or resentful that these quickie hack-‘em-ups had cheapened their favorite transgressive genre? And how did people genuinely react to a truly trashy paragon of the genre, like 1982’s Pieces? With disgust, delight or (most likely) some sheepish mixture of the two?

Because folks, Pieces is itself quite a piece of work. Not since the likes of Blood Diner have we highlighted such a crassly delivered piece of 1980s ephemera, but where Blood Diner is fantastically creative (to a fault) in its over-the-top approach, Pieces is more an exercise in hilariously incompetent imitation by a guy who doesn’t seem to understand the task at hand. This is a golden era slasher movie from before writers were engaging in meta-satire of the genre, but directed by a Spanish filmmaker–Juan Piquer Simon, who also directed MST3K’s Pod People–who seems to have only passing familiarity with the movies he’s trying to recreate. Instead, he stuffs Pieces full of whatever leftover giallo tropes he has lying around, and then bolts on whatever American slasher elements his nephew can recall from Friday the 13th, and BAM: The result is a movie that feels like it was made by aliens trying to craft an ‘80s slasher flick of their very own.

Rarely has any film been so succinctly and perfectly captured by a title as Pieces, in which nubile college women are stalked by a campus killer who is intent on sawing off various limbs and features for a not-so-mysterious purpose. It’s a moniker that fits so well, it’s honestly surprising to find that the film was instead titled Mil gritos tiene la noche or The Night Has 1,000 Screams in its native Spanish. We can likely thank the movie’s American distributor Film Ventures International for the change, skilled as they were in the art of snapping up foreign dreck and then trying to market it in ways familiar to U.S. moviegoers. Ed Montoro, the infamous CEO of Film Ventures International, was credited with giving Pieces its absolutely legendary tagline–“Pieces: It’s Exactly What You Think It Is”–only two years before he would vanish off the face of the Earth with more than $1 million in stolen company funds in 1984. Montoro has never been seen again, but his legend lives on in the form of both classic MST3K movies FVI distributed, and the sordid likes of Pieces.

Ostensibly, Pieces takes place at a liberal arts college in Boston of all places, though its actual filming locations in Valencia and Madrid lend it an ineffable air of surreality. The combination of Spanish and English-speaking actors result in unnatural interactions between characters and, thanks to the dubbing, even the English-speaking performers (like married actors Christopher George and Lynda Day George) swing wildly between stilted and laughably histrionic. Case in point: The latter, playing a police officer undercover at the university as a tennis instructor, delivers a series of impassioned cries of “BASTARD!” that have since passed into slasher infamy.

The film wastes absolutely no time, with a prepubescent murder in its opening moments before transferring to “Boston,” where the killings have already seemingly begun. Like absolutely everything in Pieces, they’re hilariously brazen–a mysterious figure in a dark coat, hat and the requisite giallo-style black leather gloves has been lugging a chainsaw around and using it to dismember coeds, sometimes in broad daylight as they recline in public parks. Coeds with lines of dialogue like the following: “The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and having sex on a waterbed at the same time!” Who could be responsible? Hey, what about the single most suspicious-looking red herring in the history of the genre? What an absolute specimen this fellow is.

He seriously squints like this for the entire film.

Pieces has little regard for whether its audience can see through such a guilelessly obvious distraction. In truth, director Simon doesn’t seem to care about much of anything other than getting shots of the female anatomy onto screen, although all the nudity is also accentuated by a few moments of male nudity, always something of an oddity for slasher films of this era. The overall competence level actually swings wildly, depending on your barometer–in terms of pop psychology, perversion and gore, Pieces fits right in alongside some of the best the golden age slashers have to offer. On the other hand, its performances, dubbing and screenplay are like a black hole from which no iota of inspiration can escape. Even the jump scares are unusually terrible, some of them so incompetently or ambiguously staged that the audience barely realizes they’re supposed to be a jump scare as they occur. Only the scare chords inform us that some of these moments are ostensibly meant to be frightening.

If there’s one moment that truly encapsulates the batshit splendor of Pieces, though, it’s the following. It occurs as bastard-screamer Lynda Day George is inadvisably walking the campus alone at night, before getting a sense that someone may be stalking her. Turning a corner, she’s confronted by the horrifying specter of … “Bruceploitation” martial arts actor Bruce Le, who launches a furious barrage of kicks at her face! After she manages to incapacitate him, he rises to his feet and is introduced as the school’s never-before-mentioned “kung fu professor,” apologizing for the incident by saying that he feels strange and must have consumed some “bad chop suey.” He then waltzes out of the scene, and the film, never to be mentioned again. The whole thing lasts less than a minute. You could call this sequence one of the most stunningly weird “out of context” clips from the entire slasher arcana, except for the fact that it’s just as inexplicable in the context of the film.

But that’s Pieces for you, the vaguely Spanish-sounding Bostonian slasher with split-second kung fu cameos, leering chainsaw perverts and the best waterbed death sequence this side of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. If you’re in the market for a film featuring a jigsaw corpse woman–a film other than the aforementioned Blood Diner, which also contains one–then Pieces ought to satisfy all your wicked desires, provided you find its eccentricities funny rather than headache-inducing. But to many of us, this strange little film is something very close to rib-sticking slasher comfort food.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.

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