Guest contributor DwC returns once more with another edition of Masterpiece Theater. This time he delves into a Juan Piquer Simon-directed effort, starring Christopher George and Linda Day George, written by Dick Randall and Robert Loyola. He will find the hidden depths and qualities that may not have been immediately apparent in Pieces.
When a mother walks into her ten-year-old son’s bedroom and catches him assembling a jigsaw puzzle depicting a nude woman, she flies into a rage and begins beating him, even going so far as to threaten murder if she ever catches him with such filth again. As she is throwing the puzzle away and rummaging through his belongings in search of pornographic material, he enters the room with an ax and brutally murders her.
He then proceeds to cut up the body with a hand saw before casually returning to his puzzle.
When the police arrive, he hides in a closet and pretends to be a traumatized witness to her murder. Forty years later, an accident on the campus of Boston University triggers a repressed memory in the unknown maniac, igniting a chain of grisly murder and violent mayhem as the now adult murderer begins assembling a new puzzle; one comprised of the body parts of his victims.
Short on leads, the two investigating detectives enlist the aid of a student and a former tennis pro turned undercover police officer to solve the case and catch the killer. With no shortage of suspects, this ragtag team of sleuths races to stop the killer before the ‘pieces’ can be collected and assembled into a macabre human puzzle.
For film fans, the late 70s and early 80s produced some of the greatest genre films ever made. One of these genres was the ‘slasher’ film. Mostly entertaining but largely disposable, the slasher was roundly dismissed by critics as sleazy, misogynistic trash.
In a sea of slasher films, it was easy to dismiss them all outright and therefore miss the many gems hiding within the genre. Pieces is one of those gems. By deftly combining the murder mystery elements of the Italian giallo and the extreme violence and nudity of the American slasher, Piquer Simon creates an unsettling masterpiece filled to the brim with unbearable suspense and brilliant symbolism.
Let’s examine the opening scene for example; here we have a clearly repressed child dealing with daily physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his surprisingly hot, shrill, nag of a mother (May Heatherly) while his father is away in the military. The child snaps and goes on a rampage after his burgeoning curiosity regarding women, represented here by the puzzle, is stifled one too many times.
The murder of his mother is uncompromising and Piquer Simon does not spare us multiple close-up shots of her taking an ax to the face. The child, now totally devoid of humanity, blithely continues working on the puzzle until the police arrive, at which point he hides in a closet – another act symbolic of repression – with a grin on his face until it’s time to act like he’s catatonic from trauma. We haven’t even gotten to the opening credits yet and there’s already enough thematic content for an entire film school thesis.
After the impressively hand-drawn credits, we see an intertitle telling us forty years have passed and we are now at Boston University. Two workers are unloading a large mirror from a van just as a female student is skateboarding down the street. A terrible accident ensues, and the mirror is shattered as she careens through it. The shattering mirror triggers a flashback for the killer, awakening the memory of his mother shattering a mirror in fury at the beginning of the film, all of two minutes ago.
We then cut to the killer’s black-gloved hands opening a box containing the blood-splattered puzzle that he was building as a child, along with the bloody clothes his mother was wearing when the murder took place. As per typical crime scene procedure, the police didn’t find these items important enough to hold as evidence and just let the ten-year-old boy keep them, blood and all. With the boring old jigsaw puzzle in progress, the killer gets to work on his new project.
With his trusty chainsaw, he goes to the park, in broad daylight, and uses it to decapitate the first girl he sees so he can keep her head. We’re less than ten minutes into the film and we already have our second graphic head removal.
Sgt. Holden (Frank Brana) and Lt. Bracken (Christopher George) are on the case and meet with our first suspect, the Dean of the University (Edmund Perdom), and implore him to keep everything quiet to avoid a panic, because that is much more dangerous than letting college kids run around unaware that a maniacal killer is on the loose. As this discussion is taking place, Professor Brown (Jack Taylor), looking like a dapper son of a bitch with his turtle neck and John Holmes ‘stache, is being sexually harassed by a pot-smoking female student while her friends laugh.
Brown is also one of our suspects, we know this based on how suspicious he acts when questioned by the police. But the police reassure him by explaining:
“We’re just buying clothes without labels and trying them on to see what fits!”
This is a brilliant way of describing routine police procedures. We then meet another possible suspect in Groundskeeper Willard (Paul Smith, AKA: Bluto in 1980’s Popeye), A giant of a man and possibly the angriest character in the history of film. This man does nothing but glower and stare with that Bluto eye and clench his fists when he’s not angrily cutting stuff up with his chainsaw. In Short; it’s glorious.
In the library, suspect number four and campus hunk, Kendall (Ian Serra), is handed a note by some hot babe inviting him to join her at the pool. It’s impressive the way Piquer Simon subverts expectations here by casting Ian Serra as a playboy despite him weighing a hundred pounds soaking wet and looking like the kid from Meatballs. Unbeknownst to Kendall and his lady, however, is that the killer is watching.
When Kendall tells his buddy he’s not going straight to the pool, the killer picks up the discarded note and discovers the location of the rendezvous. Over at the pool, the young lady gets topless, of course, and goes for a swim. The killer enters, grabs a huge net, and starts to pull her out of the water, she is powerless to duck under the surface and get out of the net. With the girl practically unconscious from the struggle, the killer grabs a chainsaw that is luckily stored poolside, at an indoor pool, and goes to town.
This time he takes the torso along with him. Kendall arrives minutes before the police to find what’s left of the body, along with Bluto holding the bloody chainsaw. The cops attempt to arrest Bluto, but he’s having none of it and starts tossing them around like rag dolls, that is until Holden puts a gun to his head and threatens to blow his brains out.
Lt. Bracken doesn’t want to wait around for the coroner so he asks Professor Brown, who is also there for some reason, if the body parts scattered about the place could have been severed by a chainsaw. Like that one. Covered in blood. Two feet from the pile of human limbs. Even Professor Brown seems dumbfounded by the question for a moment before replying in the affirmative.
Back at headquarters, Lt. Bracken is developing a plan to place an undercover officer at the college. Also, part of the plan, because Bracken is, well, pretty sure Kendall is not the killer despite being found at the murder scene, is to ask him, a college student with no law enforcement background whatsoever, to help out with the investigation. Meanwhile, the killer spies on an aerobics class and follows one of the students until her friend shows up and thwarts his murder plan.
The next morning we are introduced to Mary Riggs (Linda Day George, real-life spouse of co-star Christopher George). Riggs is a former professional tennis player who has followed the career path of many a famous athlete and is now an undercover police detective, just like world-famous Officer Martina Navratilova, who brought down Ted Bundy.*
Riggs is going undercover as the new tennis instructor at Boston University.
At this point we meet yet another character; Boston Globe reporter, Sylvia (Isabel Luque). Word is getting out that there are some shenanigans afoot at the college and she wants the scoop. She starts needling Bracken and Holden but they keep quiet, for the safety of the students, of course.
We then get treated to the most realistic tennis match ever depicted on screen. Realistic in the sense that it’s the most boring thing you’ve ever witnessed. Props to director Piquer Simon for keeping things so true to life. After the match, the dean introduces himself to Mary and they chat for a spell but get interrupted by the Globe reporter who, despite just being introduced, is now everywhere.
Back in the killer’s lair, we see him angrily jamming puzzle pieces together but uh oh! The arms are missing. Cut to the aerobics girl from earlier just as she’s finishing up a practice routine and being peeped on by the killer. He catches up with her just as she’s getting on the elevator. He gets on with her, sneakily concealing a large chainsaw behind his back. She reaches for the stop button just as he revs it up and sees her arm off in a rather impressive practical effect that sends blood spraying everywhere.
Kendall and a couple of beat cops hear her screams and rush to the scene. They arrive too late to spot the killer so Kendall, acting like the Goddamn chief of police, orders the two cops to radio for backup and an ambulance, orders from a college student that they immediately follow without question. Paramedics arrive but it’s too late, our poor victim has bled to death.
Outside, Mary is creeping around looking for clues, unaware that she too is being spied on by the killer. As the tension mounts to an unbearable level, Piquer Simon pulls the rug out from under us once again and has some Asian dude leap out of an alley and start throwing kung-fu kicks and karate chops at Mary in a martial arts display that goes on for what seems like minutes. Mary recoils, more out of what we can assume is utter confusion than fear.
Just when you think he’s going to deliver the five-point-palm death touch, he keels over. Luckily Kendall arrives and helps Mary to her feet just as the karate man gets his wits back about him. Turns out he’s Kendall’s kung-fu professor, which is a thing that exists, and he explains the whole episode away with the excuse of having eaten some bad chop-suey. We’ve all experienced the aftermath of bad Chinese food, so this makes perfect sense and there is no need for the film to elaborate further or mention this scene again. Which it doesn’t.
As Kendall is helping Mary dust herself off, the pesky reporter shows up asking more questions. They brush her off and head home as she decides to do some snooping around in the fitness center. Unfortunately for her, the killer still needs a few more body parts for his human puzzle. He springs from the shadows with a big fuckin’ knife and stabs the shit out of her on the waterbed they have in the fitness center for some reason, before driving that thing straight through the back of her head and out her mouth.
Back at Mary’s place, Kendall tries to put the moves on her, but she shuts him down.
The following day Kendall meets with Mary for a friendly game of tennis just as another student is finishing up a solo practice session. As the game commences, the killer follows the other student into the locker room where she gets naked, really naked, for a quick shower. As she’s drying off, the killer realizes he needs something to cover the noise of his chainsaw so he blasts some music from the sound system.
As Mary and Kendall try to find the source with the help of Bluto, who has been let out of jail for lack of evidence and allowed to go right back to work on the college campus where he is suspected of murder, the killer strikes. His victim is so terrified she wets herself in fear before he cuts her right in half. Legend has it the actress was so unprepared to be menaced by a real chainsaw that she actually did pee herself, and the director was so taken with this authenticity that he kept it in the film because he’s classy like that.
The practical effects here are stellar, as we see the chainsaw cutting through the victim’s bare abdomen in all its gory glory. In a film full of them, this is a particularly brutal murder. After the killing is done and the music is turned off, Kendall finds what’s left of the corpse. Unable to speak, he gestures to Mary to go into the locker room, where she finds the grisly aftermath. When she emerges, Kendall asks if she saw it…
Allow me to digress for a moment. If you follow this column, and I thank you by the way, you may have spotted one or possibly two occasions where I let my professionalism slip and resorted to hyperbole, but I can assure you that what I’m about to declare is not hyperbolic in the slightest.
When Mary exits the locker room, Linda Day George delivers the single greatest acting performance by a human being since the species evolved the ability to pretend. When she answers Kendall, she displays emotions that psychologists haven’t yet given names to. Her dialogue, on paper, would seem like pretty standard stuff for a horror film. But her delivery is for the ages:
“Yes I saw it! While we were fumbling with that music the lousy bastard was in there KILLING HER!”
The lines build to a heart-rending crescendo until all she can do is scream repeatedly:
“Bastard! BASTARD… BAAASTAAAARD!!”
It’s truly mesmerizing to behold. Bravo for lending an air of authentic human despair to this story, Linda Day George, Bravo.
At the station, Bracken is at wit’s end and vowing to do whatever it takes to find the killer, even if it means bending the rules of procedure. “To hell with the book! The book says to find the killer!” he declares. We then see that the killer has his human puzzle completed but the feet are too small and his mother’s bloody shoes don’t fit. He needs one more victim to complete his masterpiece. On campus, Mary is having a conversation with Professor Brown when she tells him she was supposed to meet the dean, but she can’t find him.
Brown informs her that the dean goes to Arlington on this day every year. Meanwhile, Kendall is helping Holden scrub school records and files for clues to the killer’s identity. Later that night the dean returns and Mary finally has her meeting. As they’re chatting, she tells him she is suspicious of Professor Brown and the dean drops the bombshell that Brown is a homosexual. Since this is 1982, and Brown has been the most obvious suspect the entire time, his homosexuality cements it; he must be the killer.
The girls at the college always play pranks on him so he finally snapped and went on a killing rampage. Mystery solved… Nope, the dean is poisoning Mary’s coffee. He’s the killer. As this scene is unfolding, Kendall finds the missing clue regarding a certain dean having witnessed his mother getting chopped into stewing meat as a child. Holden confirms it over the telephone with someone to whom he now apparently owes “a case of lollipops.”
The only flaw within this film is that we never get the back story for this exchange. They rush to the scene. Mary becomes paralyzed, but fully conscious, as the dean lays out a piece of plastic about five feet by five feet, plenty large enough to contain the entire blood supply of an adult human being. Before he kills her, he checks the shoes and… perfect fit!
Just as he’s about to de-life and de-foot Mary, the cops burst in with Kendall but the dean, being a master of deception, hides behind the curtains. The police determined, after searching the house for approximately 4 seconds, that he must have escaped somehow. They leave Mary with Kendall, who attempts to get her up and walk when the dean jumps out and attacks them.
As they struggle, the cops come back and Bracken shoots the dean right in the fuckin’ face. With the story now neatly wrapped up they start to clear the scene but… a hidden closet behind a trick bookshelf opens and the human jigsaw puzzle falls out and lands on top of Kendall for one last jump scare. A pretty effective one at that. But just when you think Piquer Simon has played his last card, he reveals one more ace up his sleeve… And whoa buddy is it a doozy?
Kendall has had enough and just wants to go home, but he needs to grab his coat, which is lying over there just on the other side of the sewn-together and quite corpse. He leans over to grab the coat and, I shit you not, in a film that contained not the slightest inkling that anything supernatural was going on, the corpse comes to life, reaches up and grabs Kendall’s uh, package, then proceeds to slowly rip everything right off his body.
If you watch closely you can even see one of his testicles burst! The camera freezes on his screaming, anguished face. Roll credits.
When discussing a work of highbrow art like Pieces, the question isn’t ‘what to say?’ as much as it is ‘where to begin?’ For this analysis, I am going to address the elephant in the room; as shocking as it may seem, this is not a respected film. I guess that it was far too challenging for the casual moviegoer, which I can understand as this is very challenging material, but what of the so-called professional critics who demolished this film upon release?
I honestly find it sad and pathetic that most celebrated “professionals” like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert will see a flash of nudity and immediately blush, turn away, and cry “degeneracy” without being able to see the symbolism in such images. Frankly, it betrays a juvenile mind. Here, the nudity is symbolic of vulnerability. These young women, so vulnerable in this new and very demanding collegiate setting, are being cut down, literally, by the academic system.
Represented quite obviously here by the dean. I see no other way to convey this point without the constant nudity and graphic violence. The untrained and easily offended eye may see it as gratuitous but, much like Travis Bickle’s ultraviolent rampage at the end of Taxi Driver, the artistic statement simply cannot be made and carry the same impact without it.
You may be asking yourself if I am suggesting that Juan Piquer Simon is on par with Martin Scorsese and the answer is yes. Yes, I am. Piquer Simon’s direction and use of red herrings brilliantly create a level of suspense that is almost unbearable at times. Acting across the board is superb, especially Linda Day George and Paul Smith.
And that ending! Many have said that the corpse coming to life and removing Kendall’s manhood was just a cheap imitation of the stinger endings of Carrie and Friday the 13th but that is pure poppy cock. There is meaning here. So, what are we to make of it? Is it merely a cheap jump scare added in to mimic those other films?
Given the highly symbolic nature of just about every frame of celluloid, it’s safe to say that this is not the case. What then? A chauvinist getting his comeuppance, a cabal of victims blindly exacting otherworldly revenge upon masculinity in general, or something else entirely? The answer is there, but it is just beyond our ability to ‘piece’ together.
Unfortunately, Piquer Simon, Randall, and Loyola have taken the secret to their graves, leaving us to ponder this mystery for eternity. What is unquestionable, however, is that this trio has crafted a rather stunning critique of the higher education system, as well as one of the greatest and most misunderstood films of all time.
10 testicle-mangling corpses out of 10
Not only does DwC deeply analyze movies that may have escaped such analysis, but it turns out they are a dab hand with a pencil, too! You can check out their work, and order prints of anything that takes your fancy, at www.cuturilogallery.com.
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