Pieces, which has its fortieth anniversary this week, had an all-time great tagline: under a picture of a chainsaw and a woman’s lifeless body, the poster reads, “Pieces: it’s exactly what you think it is.” You know the whole story immediately. You know exactly the kind of cheapo exploitation horror you’re in for. It’s a slasher movie about women being chopped to pieces.
The slasher movie is one of the most narrowly defined genres in cinema – essentially a series of riffs on Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) – and Pieces has no interest in pushing at its boundaries. A killer is on the loose on a college campus, killing women one by one with a chainsaw, using their body parts to make a human jigsaw. The broad strokes of the plot are interchangeable with most ‘80s slasher movies, if not a little subpar. In the LA Times, Kevin Thomas called it “a wretched, stupid little picture whose sole purpose is the exploitation of extreme violence against women.” Made in Spain by director Juan Piquer Simón, there’s a definite strain of giallo through its DNA – in its frequent heavy-breathing killer POV shots, you can see he wears black gloves – but leaving aside its Italian-style dubbing, no more so than say, an American slasher like Friday the 13th. The opening scene, in which a young boy kills his mother, makes its adherence to slasher tropes clear in its obvious modelling on the opening of Halloween, where Michael Myers murders his sister.
But that opening scene also makes clear that Pieces is not exactly what you think it is. The boy is putting together a jigsaw of a naked woman. His mother yells at him, telling him to throw it away. And then he attacks her with an axe. The gore is hyper-excessive: blood splattering everywhere, drenching the boy, the room, the jigsaw, as he hits her over and over again. Unlike Halloween, an unsettling portrayal of unmotivated child violence, it’s comically over-the-top. From there on out, Pieces consistently compliments its comically gratuitous violence with comically gratuitous nudity, mostly (but not exclusively!) of the female variety. Pieces, Ian Conrich writes in Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema, has an “almost self-reflexive awareness of its status as an exploitation film.”
Yet it’s not, like fellow 1982 slasher The Slumber Party Massacre, a wry, knowing satire. There’s nothing knowing about Pieces. It is, instead, like a movie beamed directly from another planet, made by aliens who definitely know about slashers and giallo, but mostly grew up on the very different cinema of their home world. Subtly off in dozens of ways that feel collectively like genius,it never shies from or even attempts to subvert the expected beats – it is exactly what you think it is – but it has its own distinct, and distinctly unhinged, brand of gleeful madness. In an interview on the Grindhouse DVD, Simón reveals that a real pig carcass was used for a scene where a girl is cut in half and her guts spill out on the floor. A classic alien-making-an-Earth-film move: don’t know how filmmakers do gore effects? Buy some real guts!
In one of the film’s first scenes, apropos of nothing and with zero subsequent payoff, a gaggle of college kids have a conversation entirely about waterbeds, concluding with the immortal line, “Nothing is better than smoking pot and f**king on a waterbed.” All the dialogue is like this, ringing with an unintentional absurdity that no Earthling could adequately replicate. A bloody chainsaw is found beside the dismembered body of a college student, and the detective – unwilling to wait for the coroner’s report – very seriously asks the anatomy professor if the killing could have been done with a chainsaw. An undercover policewoman is assaulted late at night by a martial arts guy, which is explained to everyone’s satisfaction when another character introduces him as “my karate professor.” The whole thing bursts with so many non-sequiturs that it’s an incredible achievement they squeezed in such a conventional little plot.
Like the mayor in Jaws, the dean insists that the killer on the loose be kept tightly under wraps, lest it damages the college’s reputation. “Is all this really necessary?” he asks about the cops asking some basic questions. But where the mayor in Jaws is motivated by the need to keep the wheels of capitalism turning for the Fourth of July, Pieces dares to ask the question: what if the mayor was secretly the shark? Rather than anyone in the parade of red herrings – the creepy gardener, the anatomy professor, or our college kid protagonist, Kendall, who the cops adopt as one of their own – the killer is (spoiler alert) the dean himself, trying to create a 3D version the sexy jigsaw of his childhood wearing his dead mother’s clothes. After the cops shoot him dead, one of them leans against a bookshelf that rotates under his weight, revealing the stitched-together corpse behind it. It’s kind of a perfect metaphor: the same way the killer sews together body parts, Pieces sews together bits and pieces of horror cinema into something new and grotesque. (But when Pieces does it, it’s cool.)
In the film’s final shot, the stitched-together corpse suddenly reaches up and crushes Kendall’s penis. No context, no explanation. But the aliens saw Carrie, and they loved it.