PIECES: No One With An I.Q. Over 17 Should Be Admitted Against Their Will (UPDATED WITH BLU-RAY REVIEW)

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Since it was released in 1982 during the golden age of slasher cinema Pieces has earned a reputation as the single most deranged entry in the genre. Beloved by fans for its absurdist humor and buckets of gloriously gratuitous nudity and gore, Juan Piquer Simon‘s bloodbath boasts a healthy pair of cojones but is it’s underground rep justified?

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The story begins in Boston, 1942. A normal-looking little boy is singing “Humpty Dumpty” and playing with a puzzle in his room. Turns out it’s a puzzle of a naked woman, something that doesn’t sit right with his mother. She yells at her son, slaps him around, and demands that he fetch her a plastic bag so she can trash his puzzle and his girlie rags. The son instead returns with an axe he promptly buries in mum’s head repeatedly (although the axe seems to strangely bounce off her head the first couple of times). Then he takes a handsaw and starts to dismember the corpse. The police arrive later and find the mom’s head in a closet and her dear ol’ son in another, covered in blood and asking “Where’s my mom?”

Forty years later….

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A college campus is under attack. There’s a maniac dressed all in black and armed with a chainsaw cutting up campus cuties. One gets her head chopped off IN BROAD FUCKING DAYLIGHT! Blood is flowing and the appendages are flying. Detective Lt. Bracken (Christopher George) is called in to investigate. Like a Agatha Christie mystery the suspects start coming out of the woodwork: Professor Brown (Jack Taylor), a bit of a stuffy dork who boasts of owning the skull of a 16-year-old girl; the college dean (Edward Purdom); and perhaps the biggest red herring in the movie…Willard (Paul Smith), the creepy groundskeeper who just happens to sport a pretty mighty chainsaw and tends to conviniently show up at the scene of the killings. Teaming with undercover cop Mary (Lynda Day George) and student Kendall (Ian Sera), Bracken works to bring the killer to justice.

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When the final pieces are in place this puzzle of the Battle of Waterloo will amaze the masses!

Much like another fondly remembered slasher movie classic, The Burning, my first viewing of Pieces came courtesy of watching it broken up into ten-minute segments on YouTube. In late 2008 I had been mulling over ordering the 2-disc special edition DVD that was being put out courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing (co-founded by the late Sage Stallone) based on the enthusiastic recommendations of almost every horror fan I have encountered. For years I have been circling around this movie. I’ve heard all the stories. I first read of this rancid little item in a volumn of vintage Joe Bob Briggs reviews more than a decade ago. Growing into a rabid horror fan Pieces is one of the last of the cornerstones of early 1980’s slasher flicks I had yet to see. Now I have. And what do I think?

Meh.

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“I’M MEAN! Whoops, wrong movie.”

Okay maybe I should voice my opinion a bit better than that. That’s why you’re reading this review right? And arent’t the bloody pictures awesome? Okay now I’m stalling. The hype over Pieces is mostly due to its willingness to go for broke in its goal of keeping the audience endlessly entertained. Brain damaged dialogue (“BASTARD! BASTARD! BAAAAASTAAARDDD!”), godawful acting (Mrs. Day George intones that immortal aforementioned line and it’s not her finest moment), completely out-of-nowhere plot twists (Where did that kung-fu guy come from? Were the writers watching a marathon of Pink Panther movies when they came up with that gem? And couldn’t they have hired Burt Kwouk for the part? C’mon people the man needs a job.), enough naked female flesh to satisfy Larry Flynt’s libido, and plenty of Karo syrup and pig intestines to make us gore fans squeal with delight.

But it doesn’t add up. There are too many stretches where no one gets killed so we have no choice but to watch the hackneyed mystery unfold even though a blind man could see who the killer is. Plus we have to watch the actors….act. Now that’s pretty fucking scary. At least Paul Smith looks like he’s having a ball throwing around cops and wielding a chainsaw while giving everyone the mother of all suspicious glares. Smith has worked in the past with renowned filmmakers such as Alan Parker (Midnight Express), Robert Altman (Popeye), David Lynch (Dune), and Sam Raimi (Crimewave). With all due respect to the late Christopher George, a man who once proudly shared the screen with John Wayne, but you can clearly tell he’s going through the motions. That’s a damn shame because he’s one of the great tough guys of exploitation cinema and his best films include Day of the Animals and Grizzly, both directed by the late and great William Girdler. The less said about the performance of his wife Lynda Day George, and the rest of the cast, the better. I mean, they’re adequate but no one stands out. Besides who watches a movie like Pieces for the quality of the acting? Well I do, but that’s my problem.

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Taco Bell claims another victim.

Where the movie delivers in spades is in the murder set pieces. Therein lies the real meat of Pieces. Even if the cut-rate special effects often betray their origins (the opening axe murder for example) they’re still gruesome and plentiful. The first college cutie to get it loses her head with enough spraying blood to rival Kill Bill. Another goes for a late night topless swim and gets netted by the killer like a stray leaf that fell into the pool. Yet another finds herself cornered in a locker room and sawed in half (but not before visibly pissing her pants).

There’s an “anything goes” attitude to Pieces. The filmmakers will throw whatever they can get their grubby mitts on in front of the camera on the 50/50 chance it might get a scare or at best a sick laugh. Looking at the credits for this movie you wouldn’t be surprised because it was co-written by notorious exploitation producer Dick Randall (Slaughter High) and Italian horror/porn journeyman Aristide Massaccesi (a.k.a. Joe D’Amato) here credited as “John Shadow” and produced by Stephen Minasian, one of the driving forces behind the Friday the 13th franchise.

The rather hum-worthy synthesizer score for the U.S. release was provided by an Italian music librarian who goes only by the super-cool pseudonym Cam, but is in reality three of the best composers of Italian exploitation cinema – Stelvio Cipriani (Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood, a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve), Carlo Maria Cordio (Sonny Boy, Troll 2), and Lucio Fulci’s longtime music man of preference, Fabio Frizzi (Zombie, The Beyond). The end result of this three-way collaboration certainly does not in any way resemble every other synth score done for 99.9% of the horror movies released in the 1980’s. That was me being sarcastic. A gentleman named Librado Pastor composed a different score for the international version. Mission accomplished guys….barely.

The ending of Pieces is probably one of the most memorable in the annals of slasher horror. Without giving anything away I will note that in the span of ninety seconds I got a great scare which was capped off by a moment that just meshes perfectly with the whole “What the Fuck” package.

Pieces is no genre masterpiece but damn if it isn’t one diseased gem from the heyday of grimy 42nd Street blood horror. It’s junk food for the brain, so bad for you and yet tastes so good.

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The cast of Pieces waits patiently for their residual checks. They’ve been waiting 30 goddamn years….

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 3/28/2016

In October 2008, Grindhouse Releasing granted Pieces its first legitimate home video edition since Vestron Video’s full frame VHS (Diamond Entertainment put out a budget disc a few years earlier that featured a horrible transfer obviously sourced from a third-generation videotape) with a splendid two-disc set that sported a gorgeous hi-def transfer in the film’s proper aspect ratio and a host of new and archival supplements, including recent interviews with both director Simon and co-star Smith, both men having since passed away. Once Grindhouse got into the Blu-ray game, it was only a matter of time before Simon’s sicko slasher became available on the format. Needless to say, the company that Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski built did not disappoint.

The centerpiece of this three-disc (two Blu-rays, one CD) set are the positively immaculate 4K high-definition transfers of both the U.S. version of Pieces and the original director’s cut version Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche, which runs three minutes longer and has the piano-heavy score composed by Pastor. It’s also presented in Spanish with English subtitles. The restored picture for both versions is nothing short of astounding; Pieces now looks like it could have been made last year rather than over three decades ago. This is going to be the definitive video presentation of the film for generations to come, and I expected nothing less from Grindhouse. Stellar restoration work as always. The company showed Pieces the same respect and dedication as they did for their amazing Blu-ray releases of The Big Gundown and The Swimmer.

The two high-definition transfers of the film are present on the first Blu-ray in this set along with Calum Waddell‘s crackerjack feature-length documentary 42nd Street Memories, an exhaustive, honest, and hilariously poignant tribute to that glorious stretch of asphalt running through the Big Apple that once played host to the greatest – and seediest – movie theaters in the nation, if not the entire planet. Waddell went above and beyond the call of duty in wrangling some of the living legends of grindhouse exploitation cinema to sit for new interviews, including directors William Lustig (Vigilante), Larry Cohen (God Told Me To), Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), and Jeff Lieberman (Squirm), former Aquarius Releasing head honcho Terry Levine, actress Lynn Lowry (I Drink Your Blood), author John Skipp, and many, many more. The best comments in the doc come straight from Pete “42nd Street Pete” Chiarella, the top authority alive today on the sadly long-gone Deuce and a good friend of mine whose magazine Grindhouse Purgatory I am proud to have contributed to for several issues.

The interviews with Simon and Smith from the previous Grindhouse DVD made the cut for the Blu, as did the 5.1 “Vine Theater Experience” audio track that puts the viewer in the audience at a revival screening of Pieces, and co-star Taylor contributes a fine audio commentary new to this release that is worth the trouble of dipping into during lulls in the action. There are shorter video and audio interviews, an extensive poster and still gallery, and trailers for Pieces and other films in the Grindhouse that have either already been release on DVD and/or Blu-ray or are on their way. A CD containing the full Cipriani/Cordio/Frizzi soundtrack that has been remastered from the original studio recordings and a booklet of liner notes featuring essays on the film from the late Chas. Balun of Deep Red and Gore Gazette‘s Rick Sullivan complete the set. Consumers who ordered one of the first 3000 copies of this release through Diabolik DVD received a limited edition reproduction of the film’s infamous nudie puzzle. It has since sold out and is currently commanding high prices from collectors on online auction sites, but you don’t need that pointless little trinket to enjoy what is sure to be one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2016.

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