Pieces Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
A psychopathic killer stalks a Boston campus, brutally slaughtering nubile young college co-eds, collecting body parts from each victim to create the likeness of his mother, who he savagely murdered with an axe when he was ten years old! (From Grindhouse Releasing’s official synopsis)
There are gorier movies, there are more outrageous movies, and there are certainly better-made movies, but, for pure exploitation movie fun, it’s hard to outdo the righteous chainsaw violence of Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces. Sporting not one, but two of the all-time best taglines – “You Don’t Have to Go to Texas for a Chainsaw Massacre” and “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is” – Pieces was unleashed on North American grindhouse and drive-in circuits by Artists Releasing Corporation and has enjoyed a sizable cult following throughout the VHS and DVD eras.
Pieces’ enduring popularity comes from its “perfect storm” of cult-friendly elements. First of all, it is very much of its era, from fashions and music, to other cultural markers, like a scene of scantily-clad women doing aerobics – the gold seal of ‘80s-ness in a horror movie. The early-‘80s Americana of the production is actually magnified by the fact that it was shot in Spain and Simón’s production/costume/set designers overcompensated in trying to disguise the European locations (I always get a chuckle out of the presidential portrait of Ronald Reagan that has been haphazardly pinned above another poster in the background of some shots). The foreign production also plays into the other factors of Pieces’ success, because even bad North American filmmakers tended to stick to certain rules in regards to exploitation filmmaking. Those that didn’t recognizable patterns or show restraint when it came to the more ridiculous material were usually such amateurs that their efforts were only enjoyed by niche market horror fans. Simón and his Spanish crew – working from an English language script by American writer/producer Dick Randall (his story treatment was apparently only 15 pages), who was best known for distributing trashy European movies on the US market – approached the formulas as outsiders. Like Paul Naschy (aka: Jacinto Molina Alvarez), Carlos Aured, and, of course, Jesús Franco before him, Simón ignores plot holes, leaps in logic (my favourite moment in the entire movie is one where the killer sneaks a bright yellow chainsaw into an elevator by holding it behind his back, as if it’s the size of a bread knife), stiff performances, and technical gaffes in favour of the more recognizable core elements of the genre – namely graphic bloodshed and nudity.
That gory, boundary-pushing Spanish horror tradition doesn’t stop with inadvertently funny moments and nasty violence. Pieces does generally match the efforts of its meat-and-potatoes ‘60s and ‘70s counterparts. It can’t be confused with groundbreaking or even particularly good filmmaking, but Simón isn’t a complete pushover in the directing department. In fact, most of the chainsaw scenes are well-executed with clever camera angles and editing that make Basilio Cortijo’s rubbery effects quite convincing. Or at least more convincing than the bulk of their non-Tom Savini competition. This brand of competent direction (built around the limitations of low-budget special effects) served Simón well throughout his career, beginning with his (non-documentary) feature directing debut – a Jules Verne adaptation called Where Time Began (Spanish: Viaje al centro de la Tierra; aka: The Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1977). This pattern continued on through a cavalcade of goofy sci-fi pulps, Supersonic Man (1979) and Extra Terrestrial Visitors (an E.T. rip-off with a horror slant, 1983), and his more well-known, hyper-violent creature features, Slugs (1988) and The Rift (1989) – which, believe it or not, is a better underwater monster movie than the movies it was accused of ripping off, specifically George P. Cosmatos’ Leviathan and Shaun S. Cunningham’s DeepStar Six (both also 1989).
Following embarrassment and parent-group outcries over the R-rating they handed Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), the MPAA had clamped down on violent content, and, by 1982, the slasher genre had been neutered to a series swinging hatchets and splat sounds. The red stuff was nixed and the efforts of many a talented make-up effects artist was left on the cutting room floor. Fortunately, as an outsider work, Pieces wasn’t too concerned with scoring an R-rating and it was released uncut in theaters and, more importantly to its legacy, on easy-to-find US VHS tape via Vestron Video. Simón’s film was one of a small number of mad murderer movies to completely deliver on the promise of chainsaw mayhem. The camera rarely cuts away from the sight of chain blades ripping into flesh and lovingly lingers on the sight of severed limbs and unfurled entrails.
Pieces was loosely knit and more focused on titillating its audience’s bloodlust than telling a proper plot, but Simón and Randall still accounted for the ‘rules’ of storytelling and character as they had been established by both the early slashers and late gialli, which had struggled to exist alongside their North American competitors. Though the giallo genre had been invented by and proliferated via Italian filmmakers (the word itself, giallo, is Italian for “yellow”), Spanish filmmakers had been a part of it since the late ‘60s, including Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House that Screamed (Spanish: La residencia; aka: The Boarding School, 1969), Carlos Aured’s Paul Naschy-starring The Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (Spanish: Los Ojos Azules de la Muñeca Rota; aka: House of Psychotic Women, 1974), and León Klimovsky’s Vengeance of the Zombies (Spanish: La rebelión de las muertas, 1973) – a zombie movie with a giallo killer subplot – and Naschy’s own Panic Beats (Spanish: Latidos de Panico, 1983).
As the influence of Friday the 13th’s massive box office numbers spread, giallo films started to embrace ‘80s style and drop their convoluted plots in order to make time for more graphic, special effects-driven set-pieces. Among these rougher, more grindhouse-friendly post-slasher gialli were Joe D'Amato’s Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue, 1981) and Michele Soavi’s StageFright (Italian: Deliria; aka: Aquarius and Bloody Bird, 1987), and Lucio Fulci’s super-notorious The New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982). Pieces was definitely the Spanish counterpart to this short movement and its giallo roots actually extended deeper into the genre’s lore, from the killer’s garb – a black trench coat, black brimmed hat, and black gloves straight out of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (Italian: Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964) – to uncredited screenplay input from the aforementioned Italian trash-meister D’Amato (aka: Aristide Massaccesi), and pieces of the soundtrack, which were borrowed from Italian and Spanish horror movies.
I’d be remiss to not mention the calibre of Pieces’ cast. The whole thing is headed by American actor Christopher George, fresh off a diverse string of grindhouse classics, beginning with Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980) and continuing through James Glickenhaus’s The Exterminator (1980), Herb Freed’s Graduation Day (1981) and Menahem Golan’s Enter the Ninja (1981). Sadly, George died of a heart attack in 1983, ending his run with Howard Avedis’ Mortuary (1981/83). His real-life wife Lynda Day, who appeared alongside George on multiple television shows, plays a former tennis pro who is brought onto campus as a civilian undercover agent. It’s one of the film’s more charming logical leaps. They’re joined by other exploitation-certified cast members one-time spaghetti western standby, Frank Braña, Italian matinee star turned giallo & poliziottesco regular Edmund Purdom (who had just appeared in D’Amato’s Absurd), Spanish horror mainstay Jack Taylor (born George Brown Randall, he appeared in Jesus Franco, Paul Naschy, Javier Aguirre, Amando de Ossorio, and Leon Klimovsky movies), and Bluto himself, Paul L. Smith, as the film’s most obvious red herring. Bruce Lee-sploitation “star” Bruce Le (actually a Taiwanese actor/martial artist named Kin Lung), who fronted in a number of Dick Randall kung-fu productions, also shows up in the film’s most random cameo moment.
Pieces’ first appeared on North American DVD from budget, grey market profiteers Diamond Entertainment. It was a 1.33:1 VHS quality transfer. Fans could import UK and German widescreen discs from Boulevard Entertainment and M.I.B/Premier, but they were also non-anamorphic. Grindhouse put out their anamorphic (1.66:1) special edition in 2008 and it quickly became the go-to version. In 2011, Arrow Video released an anamorphic version in the UK that looked more or less the same as the Grindhouse release. This Blu-ray marks the film’s first and only HD release of the US Pieces cut (81 minutes) as well as the first and only digital release (DVD or Blu-ray) of the Spanish language Mil Gritos Tiene la Noche cut (86 minutes). Grindhouse has scanned both cuts in 4K from their original camera negatives and presents each in 1.66:1, 1080p video. The bulk of this review pertains to the Pieces cut and I am including screencaps from that Grindhouse DVD here – the one we used to think looked so great – to illustrate how big of an improvement the 4K scan is.
I had always thought of Pieces as a particularly murky movie, going so far as to assume that cinematographer Juan Mariné didn’t really know what he was doing. Thanks to this new transfer and its vastly more delicate contrast/gamma levels, I can now see that I was wrong and that it is actually a particularly vibrant slasher movie, even during its nighttime-set murder scenes. The difference during the pool sequence (around the 19-minute mark) is especially impressive. Beyond the better balance, the 4K resolution reveals a lot more detail – both in terms of close-up textures and wide-angle patterns. Viewers can appreciate the best and worst of those gore effects as well as the intricacies of the wall paper, all without the burden of heavy black shadows, overblown whites, and fuzzy edges. Grain levels appear accurate, despite the fact that the optical texture tends to clump a bit during the darkest shots and there are nearly zero notable print damage artefacts. Compression and machine noise is minimal. There aren’t any edge haloes and minor blocking noise only wiggles along the most intense hues (usually blues). Color quality is much warmer than the slightly green DVD version. I suppose that skin tones skew a bit pink and reds are perhaps too searing, but the blood and the hideous ‘80s fashion certainly looks spectacular.
For the record, the Mil Gritos Tiene la Noche cut looks more or less identical to the Pieces cut.
The English and Spanish versions of the film are each presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. For the Pieces cut, the viewer has the option to chose either English or Spanish audio. The film was likely shot without sound, so both tracks appear to be dubbed (which is entirely normal for the time and type). The English language cast dubs their own voices, while European cast members are dubbed by an array of familiar, yet sometimes wildly inappropriate voices from Italian and Spanish voice-over regulars. The Spanish language cast is more consistent, but where’s the fun in that? Overall, the Pieces dub is cleaner and more dynamic, while the Mil Gritos Tiene la Noche dub is louder, but also significantly fuzzier, with a number of volume discrepancies in the dialogue tracks. The US cut features a mishmash of soundtracks from other movies. These include Pier Carpi’s Ring of Darkness (Italian: Un'ombra nell'ombra, 1979), soundtrack by Stelvio Cipriani; Pedro Lazaga’s Seven Dangerous Girls (Spanish: 7 ragazze di classe, 1979), soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi; Michele Massimo Tarantini’s Taxi Girl (song “I Love Blondes,” 1977), soundtrack by Enrico Pieranunzi & Silvano Chimenti; and D'Amato’s oft-mentioned Absurd, soundtrack by Carlo Maria Cordio. This composite score, credited to CAM, is smooth with neatly-layered sound, despite the single channel treatment. The Spanish language piano-heavy score is credited to Librado Pastor and it has a tendency to run over sections of film that are otherwise silent on the English track.
In addition, Grindhouse offers options to listen to the “Vine Theater Experience” audience reaction track (in Dolby Digital 5.1), as well as a selection of original music by the mononym’d Umberto (in Dolby 2.0), while watching the Pieces cut.
Commentary by star Jack Taylor – This brand new commentary is moderated by Calum Waddell, who presses the actor (who speaks English just fine – he was born in Oregon) for behind-the-scenes anecdotes in a sort of interview format. Taylor isn’t outrageously proud of the film, but, unlike a number of aging actors forced to revisit their exploitation catalogue, he isn’t ashamed of it, either. In fact, he has plenty of positive memories from the set and is tickled by its enduring legacy. The content is rarely screen-specific (some of the best bits are tangents about Taylor’s work with other genre directors), but there also aren’t many silent streaks. There’s very little overlap between this track and the other interviews in this collection.
Vine Theater Experience intro with Eli Roth (Easter Egg, 3:50, SD)
Footage of Simón looking through casting photos/promo material with unnamed fans (Easter Egg, 4:30, SD)
Still galleries: Production stills, publicity materials, video releases, bits and pieces, and a section marked ‘Juan Piquer.’
Pieces of Juan (55:30, SD) – The first interview, conducted by filmmaker Nacho Cerda, is a holdover from Grindhouse’s DVD release. Director Simón discusses his entry into film, his early career, turning down Last House on the Left Part 2, developing Randall’s scant script treatment, his opinions on modern horror, the cast, special effects, international censorship, the film’s strange scores, and Pieces’ legacy as a midnight movie in America. He also refused to claim any conscious influences on the film, which is pretty fun, considering its obvious odes to gialli, slashers, and American survival horror movies.
The Reddest Herring (57:50, SD) – The second interview, with Paul Smith, also first appeared on the DVD (he died in 2012). The cordial actor charmingly recalls his earliest acting experiences, volunteering for the Israeli army under a pseudonym (Smith wasn’t Jewish enough for the Israelites), his Israeli action movies, his Italian comedy career (which he scored due to his resemblance to Bud Spencer/Carlo Pedersoli), his occasional Hollywood career (specifically Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, 1977, and, of course, Robert Altman’s Popeye, 1980), his experiences making Pieces, and, briefly, his work on another cult classic, Robert Martin Carroll’s Sonny Boy.
Producer Steve Minasian (3:00, HD) – The final of the DVD-ported interviews is an audio-only affair with the producer, who was partially responsible for the film’s successful US release.
Bios and Filmographies for Paul Smith, Edmund Purdom, Lynda Day, Christopher George, Steve Minasian, Dick Randall, and Simón
42nd Street Memories: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Notorious Street[/i] (81:50, HD) – This feature-length documentary on New York’s grindhouse district was written and directed by Calum Waddell (the same guy moderating the commentary track). It’s basically an oral history via the filmmakers, actors, and other “celebrities” that experienced the phenomenon, including William Lustig (director of Maniac and the Maniac Cop series, and the founder of Blue Underground), Larry Cohen (director of Q:The Winged Serpent, God Told Me To, et cetera), Frank Henenlotter (director of the Basket Case series), Buddy Giovinazzo (director of Combat Shock), Jeff Lieberman (director of Squirm and Just Before Dawn), Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins, et cetera), Matt Cimber (The Witch Who Came from the Sea), actress Lynn Lowry (I Drink Your Blood, Shivers, et cetera), and more. This marks the film’s US Blu-ray debut, though it previously appeared on 88 Films’ UK BD release of Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagous.
Grindhouse Releasing Prevue Reel
Pieces original CD soundtrack, newly remastered from the original studio tapes.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.