With so many great Christmas horror movies, it's easy to forget about the "pretty good" ones that might get lost in the shuffle. Therefore, this month's Crypts will be focusing on a different under the radar holiday horror flick that I don't necessarily pull out every year, but is a worthy "alternative" holiday option all the same.
The 1982 slasher movie Pieces has increased its cult following over the past few years (and those numbers will swell again with a new special edition hitting next year), and rightfully so - in an era with far too many anonymous masked killer flicks, Pieces stands out even to die-hard completists like myself. It's a film that never once dips into what you might call "traditional storytelling", offering the most nonsensical red herrings in cinema history, utterly bizarre story points ("You'll go undercover as a tennis instructor..."), and of course, kung fu professors who had some bad chop suey. There's really nothing else like it, which can prove to be detrimental when you assume that the people behind the movie might have struck that same kind of gold again. Alas, director Juan Piquer Simón's output is so random one can't even begin to find any connection between the films, and co-writer Joe D'Amato worked on so many movies it's even more pointless to try to gauge what he brought to the table.
But then there's Dick Randall, the film's producer and co-writer, who was well known in the exploitation circles. Like his cohorts, his resume offers no consistency as far as genre goes (action, adult films, westerns, etc), but there is one thing that ties a lot of it together - they're all pretty ridiculous movies. He worked on a few random horror movies in the 70s (including the amazing Crocodile) but along with Steve Minasian he can count Pieces as his first slasher, and inarguably the pair's best. They would go on to make two more; 1986's Slaughter High (a UK production where 35 year old Europeans are supposed to pass for 28 year old Americans) is best ignored by all but slasher completists, but their 1984 effort Don't Open Till Christmas OCCASIONALLY taps into that same sort of (unintentional) genius that makes Pieces so wonderful.
However, it's best to forget the Pieces connection at all - something I wish I had done the first time I saw it. As an avowed fan of Christmas horror films I was expecting a full blown gem when I first sat down to watch the movie, especially when you consider I hadn't heard of Pieces before I watched it only a year or two before I saw this one. Since I feed on this stuff it's rare to come across anything I hadn't heard of, and in those cases I would usually discover that the film was obscure for a pretty good reason. Pieces was one of those wonderful but highly rare exceptions, and given that it was from some of the same folks and would be tapping into one of my favorite sub-genres, I expected this to follow suit. Alas, I couldn't really get into it then, and (like last week's Sint) it wouldn't be until I watched it again that I was able to meet it on its own terms and find a little more to like. Of the four movies I'm covering this month, this is probably the least likely one you'll ever want to revisit annually (if at all), but it deserves at least one watch.
Part of the appeal is how it's an inversion of the usual Santa-driven slasher movie: instead of a bunch of people being picked off by a killer in a Santa suit, a mystery killer is killing anyone he/she (he) sees that's wearing a Santa suit. His own disguise is typical slasher stuff - a jacket and a creepy mask, but it's the rare entry in the sub-genre where the victims aren't a group of friends or whatever - they're tied together only by their love of wearing a red and white coat. None of the doomed Santas have ever even met, as far as we know, and most aren't even given names - the credits just offer "Theatre Santa", "Dungeon Santa", "Drunken Santa", etc. This is one of the few things that connect to Pieces, as the victims in that film were all picked at random (and for the most part only introduced right before their demise), and allowed the film to include a heavier police element than you usually find in a body count flick. Our head investigator here (from Scotland Yard!) is none other than Edmund Purdom, who was the Dean in Pieces and also took on directorial duties here, at least for a while (more on that later).
Another thing in its corner is that it would make for a great Christmas party option (if your friends are fellow horror fans), as there's rarely more than a few minutes in the movie without another kill scene. You would think that the killer would have trouble finding victims once the public caught on to his MO, but if anything his job is made easier as the film goes, with kill scenes coming and going out of nowhere. The film's most infamous kill, a castration of a department store Santa who was taking a bathroom break, barely even receives recognition from the other characters - it's like he has so many options that the police don't even have time to fully investigate them all. He nabs ten by my count, despite the fact that the cops figure out what's happening after I think the 3rd or 4th (to be fair, two of the others after that are cops who are trying to lure the killer out, but still. Cancel the department store Santa!). Add in the occasional non-Santa kill and the explosive ending, and you have a perfect background distraction that might lure away the person who has trapped you into conversation, allowing you to make your break.
Plus, actually paying attention to the movie can be detrimental at times, since the storytelling is sloppy even by slasher standards. One major character is seen being released from jail despite the fact that we never knew he was arrested, and then he basically disappears from the movie even though he has kind of been our main male character so far (the "Final Girl" type, whose father is one of the first victims, is killed with 20 minutes to go). The script cancels out many of the suspects when it doesn't have to, and the final showdown with the killer is abruptly cut away from in order to present a flashback that explains why he hates Christmas (like at least a dozen slashers, it's the result of a childhood trauma involving his parents), information that maybe could have been given when the killer is identified, instead of when his ultimate fate is supposed to be revealed (and it never is, for the record). On the other hand, the script makes up for it by paying off the title in the final scene in a manner probably no one could have predicted.
And that number includes some of the cast and crew, I'm sure, as the film was rewritten/re-shot/reedited quite a bit. The cast listing includes an actor/character who is never seen, Purdom quit the film at some point (and his replacement was fired after two days), and new scenes were added to make sense out of the old ones, some of which didn't end up in the movie anyway. This is why, I assume, things like the aforementioned arrest/release subplot makes no sense as depicted, and why it took me two viewings to even comprehend the connection between the killer and one of the other characters (it involves both of them changing their names, when one would suffice to hide their connection until necessary). The film's own promotional making of from 1984 (available on the special edition release) even shows scenes that aren't in the movie, and one major kill scene with different actors than the ones that ended up playing those parts. In retrospect, I should be sort of proud of myself for only needing two viewings of the movie to understand it - the production was such a mess that it should be impenetrable no matter how many times you see it.
Speaking of the special edition, the bonus features are all vintage (not counting the new transfer of this long out of print film), so don't look for much retrospective content - there isn't any. But I guess you can't really be surprised by that considering how many people involved with the production are now dead. The guy who played the killer committed suicide before the movie even came out, and the aforementioned "male lead" also killed himself several years later (a third performer drank himself to death, which is sort of a suicide). Randall and Purdom have passed on, as has co-writer Derek Ford. Most of the other performers quit the business entirely. I'm not saying any of this had to do with the movie, but the last time I recall seeing such a depressing IMDB page was Manos.
But I assure you it's not as bad as that goddamn thing, and you should definitely give it a curious look, if for no other reason than to appreciate the relative competency of Silent Night Deadly Night 2 or something. Again, there are more than enough kills to satisfy your bloodthirsty viewing demands, and even if it never gels as well as it should, it's STILL about a masked murderer wiping out nearly every Santa in London. That's enough novelty to overcome its relentlessly haphazard storytelling, I think. Plus how many slashers end on an explosion? Merry Christmas!
Next week: To All A Goodnight!