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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pieces embodies the vulgar pleasures of exploitation horror

Illustration for article titled Pieces embodies the vulgar pleasures of exploitation horror

Who doesn’t love watching scantily clad women having their body parts sawed off? Lots of people, really: In its simplest form, horror is grotesque emotional allegory, taking the usual beats of drama (Going through a breakup feels like having your heart ripped out!) and cutting right to the icky stuff (Oh God, someone’s heart is literally being ripped out!). What’s commonly referred to as “exploitation” horror does one better: Dispensing with anything not essential to the primal concepts of sex and violence, it gleefully leads the viewer straight into the Manichean world of murderers and nymphos, where you’re either killing or being killed—or getting naked, in which case you’re probably halfway to the second option already. The appeal, as with anything, lies in the execution (or executions, really), and in the world of crazy, bloody mayhem, 1982’s Pieces remains an under-seen treasure.

Famous for having arguably the best tagline in the history of low-budget exploitation horror (“It’s exactly what you think it is!”), Pieces (a.k.a. The Night Has 1,000 Screams in its original Spanish version) borrows heavily from the Italian giallo tradition, but possesses an insanity wholly its own. The story is pure paint-by-numbers horror: After the requisite flashback scene in which a disturbed young boy kills his mother, the film picks up 40 years later on a Boston college campus, where the now-grown child is an unidentified killer offing young women and removing their body parts, according to some deranged logic that lines up with an old jigsaw puzzle of a nude woman. Campus playboy Kendall (Ian Sera) is quickly pegged as a suspect when one of his paramours becomes a victim, and he joins a “who’s the killer?” roster that includes an awkward professor (Jack Taylor), a menacing gardener (Paul Smith, who played Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye and whose bug-eyed mugging suggests he never left the character behind), and others. Police lieutenant Bracken (Christopher George) arranges to place Mary Riggs (Linda Day) undercover as a tennis instructor at the school, and from there, the murders—primarily via chainsaw—really begin.

That narrative is pedestrian as hell, but damn, the execution. The movie manages to luck into that ideal combination of over-the-top bloodshed, gratuitous nudity (of both male and female types, though the latter is, as expected, the mainstage show), and unintentional absurdity for which enthusiasts of the genre are perpetually on the hunt. Even non-aficionados will find much to enjoy, as the film is jam-packed with so many bizarre non sequiturs and comically strange exchanges that fans over the years have understandably wondered if director Juan Piquer Simón secretly intended it to be a subversion of the genre. Outside of Sleepaway Camp, there aren’t many other horror movies that intersperse their ongoing kill counts with such daffy personality. There’s the never-seen-again student who shows up just long enough to say, “The greatest thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed.” There’s Mary’s late-night investigation of the campus that ends with an inexplicable kung-fu assault from an instructor. And the ending—it might not be the most out-of-left-field surprise ending in horror history, but it’s not far off.

Grindhouse Releasing has done a superb job with this release, taking everything good about the 2008 DVD reissue and improving on it. The best upgrade is a solid new 4K transfer of both the original unrated U.S. edition and the three-minutes-longer Spanish-language director’s cut, taken from the original camera negative. (The director’s edition doesn’t deliver much in the way of extra gore, but it’s appreciated nonetheless.) There’s an audio commentary by actor Jack Tayor, who doesn’t have much insight into the film itself (beyond confirming there was nothing “subversive” intended about it) but who offers some charming anecdotes about related trivia, such as his relationship with famed sleaze-horror director Jess Franco. Also included is 42nd Street Memories, a documentary about Times Square’s notorious cinema district during its trash-tastic heyday, featuring interviews with a bevy of noted horror luminaries like Frank Henenlotter, Larry Cohen, and Joe Dante. It’s available elsewhere, but makes for a neat and worthwhile bonus here. There’s also a CD of the original soundtrack, remastered from the original tapes and sounding great. Beyond that, all the previous edition’s features are maintained as well, including the “Vine Theater Experience,” which is a version of the film that includes the sound from a live Eli Roth-presented screening in Hollywood, something that sounds cool in theory but is ridiculous in execution—which, come to think of it, is awfully fitting.