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. 

Basket Case (1982)

As I mentioned in a previous post, some horror films are made in the attempt to outright shock the hell out of you. I love to see those old posters with warnings across them and unforgettable tag lines that stayed in your mind. I love to see the uniqueness of the poster art and the thinking behind some of those now-famous and collectible pieces. That's why I miss the horror trash of the eighties - it seemed that every B-horror film maker with the smallest of budgets was just out to see how low they could sink and how much they could gross you out. From horrific styles of murder and gore to stupid plot lines with deranged characters, 80's films hold their spots in history. Before they existed, there was nothing like them. And in today's modern world, there's nothing that could hold a torch to them. Whether it was to establish a reputation is to be argued by some, but Mr. Frank Henenlotter shocked the horror world when Basket Case was unleashed back in 1982. And I know if you're reading this, you're laughing to yourself because you've seen it and love it.

I first saw the VHS of this film at El Chaparral Supermarket in La Feria, Texas about mid 1986. I remember staring at the cover of Belial creeping out of the basket as it looked back at me and for weeks, I wouldn't pick the cover up. Every time I was in the store, I looked at the box but never held it. As stupid as that sounds, I must have been about 13 at the time, but one day I did and when I saw the horrific images on the back of the box, I remember throwing the box back onto the rental shelf, heart beating rapidly, and my imagination raced as to what kind of horror film this must be. I immediately vowed that I would never see it as something this horrifying would mess me up for life. And I held that promise to myself even seeing the box over and over again at various rental places and grocery stores as years went by. That is, until 2005, when the local mom and pop was easing out their VHS inventory to make room for DVD and this was on the seller's block for a measly $2.50. Hey, I was already in my thirties, right? How bad could this really be? I'd sat through atrocities like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, so this should be a piece of cake, right? Right...?

The plot is quite simple: Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Henteryck) makes a trip to New York and checks into the Hotel Broslin with a large basket in his hand. Being questioned by everyone wherever he goes, he keeps the contents of the basket secret and visits several doctors in the area. But there's a reason why he's visiting them. You see, Duane has a secret: In the basket, he carries around his twin brother Belial, who isn't really human per se, but a blob of skin and organs with no legs and two stout arms. They were separated by the evil Doctor Kutter (Diana Browne) and the boys have come to take their revenge on her and Doctor Needleman (Lloyd Pace) for separating them. The twins have a bond, a connection as all twins do, but since Belial cannot speak, he can communicate telepathically with his brother Duane and vice-versa. Belial spends most of his time quiet inside the basket, but when he finds out that Duane has found a love interest by means of the secretary at the doctor's office named Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), Belial wants out, and he'll do what it takes to break them apart.

Filled with humor and some of the sickest murders ever, this film is something you have to see to believe. The boys wreak havoc on those who cross their paths and Belial wastes no time in disposing of them, in rather ultra-violent ways. Some of the murders are so over the top, you wonder how people back them could stomach them. But what I love most are the scenes where Belial 'comes to life' in the form of stop-motion animation. That's right, stop-motion animation. It makes you laugh and creeps you out at the same time to see the little wad of skin and blood move around and it's something I can guarantee that you've never seen before and will never see again in a film of this nature. How this didn't get a slap on the wrist by the MPAA is pretty astounding. At least, I haven't read anywhere that this film was threatened with an X-rating. It should have, though. It pushes so many envelopes, and it pushes them off the table and onto the floor. Most of the film takes place within the Hotel Broslin, which provided the perfect sleazy setting for this kind of motion picture. It's dark, dingy, and you can smell it from a mile away. It reeks of the old days of 42nd Street - and there's even a scene where Duane is walking down the street in front those cheap and dirty theatres while being haggled by a fellow offering him every drug in the book. I always love to see scenes like those. One of the best scenes is is when Duane recalls the day him and Belial were separated. Totally cheap and totally fake, but you can't take your eyes off the screen. And the death of Doctor Kutter remains one of my all-time favorite murders and is one of the highlights you can't miss.

The pinnacle of the film is when Belial finally can take no more and escapes from his basket to roam around New York. Tired of being copped up and tired of living under his brother's thumb - and jealous of the woman Duane has found - he goes missing and the hunt is on to find the missing twin. Where he is finally found and what he is doing when they find him will actually have you saying out loud, "Oh, I think I threw up a little. (gagging noise)" It isn't pretty, kids, and it's something you don't expect. This turn of events causes the brothers to feud until they are hanging off the Hotel Broslin's sign hanging over the street below and end up on the pavement next to each other. 

Not to worry, Basket Case 2 was made several years later, so the story of the Bradley boys doesn't end here. If you're not already a fan of this film, you need to be. Thankfully, Something Weird released this on DVD a few years back and though it's not entirely cleaned up, it still looks damn good. The bonus material is great, especially some of the outtakes and alternate takes. They're worth looking at. Along with the two trailers, there's a radio spot or two. But you've got to take time and see the featurette, "In Search of the Hotel Broslin" in which Frank Henenlotter himself guides us through some of the many areas used during filming. Everything from the apartment building where the hotel stood to the building where the sign hung, to the S&M club that the bar scenes and basement scenes were shot in. And if you watch it, ignore the goof that's tagging around Henenlotter like a sick puppy, with nothing clever to say but emit a grunt here and there. Wait, he's a rapper? I rest my case. The SW DVD is marked unrated and I haven't seen the feature in its entirety to tell you how it compares to the Media VHS version that I also own.

Hands down, get this. I picked this up at Rasputin's new for less than $9. Even if you pay a little more than that, it's worth every penny. There is nothing like a bloody exploitation cheesy film to make a rainy day. And there's no film more bloody, exploitative and outright cheesy than this one. Shocking at times, hilarious at others, this belongs in your collection.
Here's one of the short (but sweet) trailers: