Everybody’s Into Weirdness: PIECES (1982)
The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The seventeenth entry into this disreputable canon is the skeevy, utterly bonkers slasher farce, Pieces…
Trailers: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; Motel Hell
In the annals of trash cinema’s Hall of Fame, few films come close to matching the sheer nonsense-per-scene factor that Pieces packs into less than ninety minutes. An utter masterwork of illogic, smut producer Dick Randall (Slaughter High, Don’t Open Till Christmas) and notorious schlockmeister Joe D’Amato (Beyond the Darkness) are incorporating a kitchen sink, almost ZAZ-like sensibility when it comes to the preposterous manner in which their somewhat simple and clichéd story unfolds. It’s Airplane! with chainsaws; yet the picture was never meant to be a parody.
A vaguely smug, straight-faced sensibility is injected via Juan Piquer Simón, as the Mystery on Monster Island director allegedly intended to make an art film out D’Amato and Randall’s script. That’s right – a movie in which a coed skateboards through a mirror being hauled by two moving men (silent comedy style) during the scene that establishes its campus setting was originally envisioned as “high brow” by the man who made it. However, this lack of self-awareness is what marks Pieces as an authentically bizarre artifact: oblivious sincerity that results in sheer filmic lunacy. Pieces – it’s exactly what you think it is – a mean-spirited, poorly dubbed Spanish knock-off of Italian giallo. Only it isn’t.
Pieces often resembles a parallel dimension Scooby Doo episode – only in this mind-bending transmission from Hell’s Cartoon Network, there’s no dog, Velma smokes weed whilst gabbing about fucking on a waterbed, and Shaggy is a closeted college professor, always giving someone the side-eye. We know who the killer is from the grotesque pre-credits teaser – a sexually confused man-child, who butchered his mother with an axe after she scolded him for playing with a naked lady puzzle (complete with a piece that’s entirely 70s bush). Now he prowls a non-descript “New England University” (think: the Hong Kong gag from A Fistful of Yen, again played completely straight), searching for the right parts to put together a fleshy alternative to his original brainteaser. As he grew up, the maniac upgraded his slaughter tool of choice, trading in the axe for a deafening, gas-powered chainsaw.
Keeping it (somewhat) classy is a team of consummate professionals, navigating this blood splattered dumpster with a glimmer in their eyes and mouths out of sync with the words we’re hearing. Christopher and Lynda Day George (the Z-Grade royalty couple best known for this and Howard Avedis’ Mortuary*) are game for everything Randall and D’Amato’s positively bugnuts script throws at them. Mr. George delivers the same raspy charm Lucio Fulci fans came to know and love him for, while Lynda hollers “BASTARD!” at the top of her lungs. There’s something to be said for thespians who had to know they were starring in complete junk (unlike the man calling the shots), but still never phone in a single moment of their stellar, albeit wooden, performances. Ms. George even manages to make a lackadaisical tennis match somewhat engaging, as the psychosis takes a quick breather for the former Mission: Impossible beauty to practice her stroke fundamentals.
Unlike the Georges, the rest of the cast seem to be completely bewildered by the tone Randall, D’Amato and Piquer have cobbled together. Secret weapon of Italian cinema, Edmund Purdom (whose voice you’ve probably heard on multiple Eurohorror English language tracks), plays The Dean of this Institution of Coed Slaughter with about as much depth as a character card from Clue. Purdom’s a British ball of furrowed brows and panicky fidgeting, never wanting these heinous crimes to become the subject of campus gossip (he has a reputation to uphold, after all). It’s a Masterpiece Theater meets 42nd Street Masturbation Hole slice of honey-glazed ham, bested only by Paul L. Smith (that’s right, Bluto from Robert Altman’s Popeye adaptation), portraying the most obvious red herring in the history of genre cinema. Stroking his chainsaw as the universe’s most inept groundskeeper (seriously – he makes Carl Spackler look like a master caretaker at Augusta National), Smith is a riot, feeling so incredibly out of place in every scene that you can’t help but count him out the first time he ogles a short-skirted student from behind a bush. He’s just too fucking obvious to be the killer! (Or is he?)
It’s highly unlikely anyone who sits down with a Dick Randall joint is presuming to take in stellar acting, but Pieces most certainly goes above and beyond in a category horror hounds demand: extreme quantities of gratuitous gore. When the killer strikes, limbs are hacked off, torsos are mangled, and a waterbed stabbing becomes almost avant garde, as the tacky furniture is quickly transformed into a slow motion plasma sea. There’s a shameless lack of taste being employed in almost all areas of this cheapie murder fest, but the actual violence is perhaps the movie’s most brazenly sordid element. Unlike many other grindhouse pictures of its ilk, Pieces certainly delivers on its poster’s promise: “you don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre.” That’s movie marketing done right.
As far as “audience experience” movies go, Pieces is unquestionably one of the finest ever crafted. Seeing a Kung Fu Professor leap out of the darkness just isn’t going to hit as hard from your lonely couch as it does with a crowd of like-minded individuals, all gathered in the dark to take in some serious sleaze. But that’s the beauty of the collective experience that is mostly lost outside of the rep house today. There’s a joy to unironically witnessing a wild transmission from a time that was not your own, and watching others react to the movie’s sincere madness. Mystery Science Theater is nothing compared to the legitimate enjoyment of blatant bullshit, especially when it ends on such a brilliantly disturbing moment of painful crotch disfigurement.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Pink Flamingos
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains
*Which would sadly be Christopher George’s last film, as he died of a heart attack shortly following its completion.