Friday, November 7, 2008

Pieces (1982)

It is a warm summer day in Reedley, California. It is 1983 and my parents and I are at the local drive-in theater. Don't hold your breath, though. We're at a drive-in, but it's Saturday afternoon so we're at the drive-in-turned-flea-market on the corner of Alta and Manning Avenues. The day is hot and my mother, sister and I are in line in the concession building, taking in the cool air of the swamp coolers overhead and listening to 80's music over the loudspeakers, something along the lines of Air Supply or Hall and Oates or something in that style. My father is out in the heat trying to find something to buy, or browse, I can't remember which. I'm holding a Pepsi in my hand - ah, some things never change, do they? - and I'm chewing the wax rim off the paper cup and looking around at the movie posters behind the glass casings. Suddenly, this bright red poster catches my eye and has me frozen. The picture of a dead woman strewn on the floor with a large chainsaw hovering over her glares back at me with a force so strong that I can't stop staring at it. I can read the tag line at the top of the poster and the notice that "No one under 17 admitted to this performance" is screaming at me. I remember my mother calling my name to tell me we were going back outside but I couldn't move, my eyes were fixed on that image of the woman. She came to grab me and when her hand touched my shoulder, I remember jumping out of sheer fright. It was something I never forgot.

Several years while living in South Texas, I bumped into this one again while at Valley Mart - a grocery store in the city of Weslaco where I first came into contact with many horror classics - and listening to Kon Kan's "I Beg Your Pardon" as it came over the store's loudspeakers. I recognized the art that I'd seen on the poster and walked over to pick it up. This little wave of fear came over me and I held my breath as I read the back of the box. The premise? A crazed killer is stalking the girls of a local college in an attempt to mutilate them and create his own human puzzle. Sure, it sounded grisly, but it had my attention. With the voice of my mother calling me (again), I put the box down and walked away. Little did I know I wouldn't see this title again until my late twenties living in Independence, Missouri. I was in the local Best Buy and I saw the Diamond DVD release and snagged it without thinking. I ran home, put it in my player only to discover that the disc was a total dud. Man, was I pissed. I was pissed enough to where I didn't take the disc back - I'd only paid about $5 for it - and I didn't look for the film again. About a year or so later, I was shopping with some friends at the local pawn shop and rummaging through the used VHS, as I always do when I visit a pawn shop, I found the Vestron version of this movie and grabbed it. For only 50 cents, you'd better believe that I was walking out of the store with it. But I noticed that there was no label on the tape. No sort of sticker or anything. I wasn't going to fall for it twice so I asked the guy behind the counter to allow me to play it on one of their many VCRs and thankfully, the tape in the box was actually the film itself. I took it and as soon as I got home - and everyone went to bed - I popped this into the player and finally got to watch this one in its entirety.

The opening scene was completely laughable and nothing like what I was expecting. I laughed as I watched the kid put together the pieces of the porno puzzle and listened as his mother called him every name in the book when she catches him with it. What was even funnier was how the kid came back and hacked his mother over the head with axe to get her back. Blood spewing everywhere as the ax literally bounced off her head. A scene like that should have been terrifying and disturbing but it was just the opposite. I knew at that moment that I was in for a treat - especially when the telephone in the house rings and the camera shows us a push button phone. Doesn't the entire opening scene take place in 1942? Wait, there goes the phone again. Low Budget, is that you calling?

What transpires throughout the film is that there is a killer loose on the campus of a local college looking for female bodies to dismember to create his own human puzzle of sorts. We have the late, great Christopher George heading the whole thing and his lovely then-wife Linda Day going undercover as a professor at the college to get to the bottom of the murders. With the aide of the college dean (Edward Purdom) and cute student Kendall (Ian Sera), the four intend to get to them bottom of things. This film is fantastic. It reeks of sleaze and that's it's enduring quality. As a horror film alone, it stinks and not in the good way, but there are characteristics about it that still have it as the classic that it is, still showing in midnight runs throughout the country (I almost got to see it in Dallas, Texas during the fall of 2005 at the Angelika but, just as the time I almost got to see Cannibal Ferox...) and people still sell the show out. There is a sort of humorous touch to the whole thing and some of the scenes are so outrageous that you have to sit back and just laugh to yourself and wonder how the hell this crap fest got greenlit. I guess I can answer my own question on that one: back in the horror heydays of the 70's and 80's, if a particular film became an international smash hit, film distributors would cash in on that particular subject in their own ways to make money. When The Exorcist was released, how many possession films followed? Beyond the Door, Abby....I could go on. This was a film that cashed in on the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and they were brave enough to admit it on the film's adverts! Only this one gave everyone what they didn't get in that film: Blood and gore!

The Georges are great in this film. They play serious roles but play them in a manner in which they don't have to take themselves seriously. Wait, did that make sense? The best scene in the film is when the killer activates the campus' public address system and the sounds of a marching band blare across the schoolyard. No one can understand why this is happening and everyone tries to find out how it happened and how to shut it off. But when dear Mary Riggs (played by Day) reaches her tolerance limit and begins to scream the word, "Bastard!" at the top of her lungs in hopes of the killer hearing her over the already louder music, without wanting to, you just begin to laugh until you have tears in your eyes. Don't get me wrong, you feel her pain and understand her plight. But If you're a fan of this film, the moment you hear someone say the word, "bastard", you smile to yourself and see Mrs. Day-Greorge clutching her fists and screaming out into the open air. They don't make cheese like this anymore, kiddies.

The gore in this film is fantastic. It holds nothing back and it is what it is. Some of the murders in this film are so gruesome that you have to sit back and smile. They are presented with a loving detail that while you're smiling, you have to admire how these guys pulled them off in the first place. The acting is particularly sub par, but with a film of this nature, can you expect anything more than that? Toward the end of the film, it takes a bizarre twist that you're not expecting, which made the film all the more worth while. With the added treat of Ian Sera's full frontal shot - in front of a poster for Friday the 13th! - the film ended up being more than I would have ever expected, and then some. When the identity of the killer is revealed in the final act and when you realize what the whole thing is really about, you have to put your hand over your mouth and refrain from both laughing and screaming. But, I have to say, though, that the film's final shot remains one of the most disturbing in horror history - especially if you're of the male persuasion. You've got to admire and love a schlock film such as this that can make you laugh and then leave you with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach.

If you're a horror fan, get this one. I know that Grindhouse Releasing have just put out a newly mastered version of this film on DVD which I don't have yet. I think it's about time this gem got the proper DVD treatment as this one is really hard to find still in print. I own the Diamond DVD (though it doesn't work), the original Vestron VHS, and the VHS print on a DVD compilation called The Blood Feast Collection released by TGG Direct, grain, noise hiss and all. They'll never make them like this again. Enjoy them while you still can get a hold of them. This one is by far one of my favorites and it belongs in every horror fan's collection. Now that it's widely available, there's no reason why you shouldn't own it already.

I couldn't find a trailer, but here is the opening act of the film. Sleaze heaven if you ask me. for the original Spanish version and for the English version. Notice the difference in the music and dialogue. Wait, did I hear someone say, "Bastard"?

(Update 5/25/12): I have to apologize for the review above. Since I wrote this a few years ago, my writing style(s) have changed and have "grown up" a little. I've been able to get my hands on the new 2-disc Special Edition by Grindhouse Releasing and let me say that it is the definitive version. The picture and sound are great (it can even be watched with the original Spanish-language soundtrack). One of the great special features on the second disc is an on camera interview with director Juan Piquer Simon, giving some insight on the filming of Pieces. But, the best feature of all - which was also done similarly on the Grindhouse Releasing version of Cannibal Ferox - is that you can watch the film with a track from a live audience watching it on the big screen at a Los Angeles theater. I did it only once and though it was oddly entertaining, it was something I will only do once. Then there's an on-camera interview with Eli Roth talking about the film and it's legacy and impact. The film comes with a fold-out replica of the original poster above and a picture of the original Spanish-language title, Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche. But honestly, I still love my Vestron Video VHS version, grain, hiss and all. If anyone knows how the Diamond version is (if it's cut, quality, etc), let me know, since I'll never know how it is; I've never seen it again in any store since I purchased my non-operational version back in 2003. I don't know how limited it is so get it before it goes out-of-print. It's worth having. 

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