Friday, August 12, 2011

Pieces (1982)

by Alec “We’re all just meat” Cizak

I have spent the last year searching for the perfect slasher movie. It doesn’t exist. There’s Halloween, a great suspense film, and then there’s a string of imitations that continue to be produced to this day. After reading criticism of the slasher genre, both supportive and hyper-critical (Robin Wood, I’m looking at your pseudo-intellectual, paranoid corpse), I got the notion that there was something very subversive about the early slashers. I wanted to believe that there was some play on “the Other” going on between the kids getting chopped up and their attacker(s) (as well as the adults who were, generally, spared the blade). As with every assumption made about slashers, the patterns simply weren’t there on a consistent basis.

For instance, the “Final Girl” in virtually every golden age slasher (pre-1982) is not pure and virginal, as so many critics have suggested. The original “Final Girl” smoked pot (Halloween), another “Final Girl” played strip-Monopoly (Friday the 13th), another boogied like she meant it (Prom Night), another was in on a sexual prank (Terror Train), still another juggled men (My Bloody Valentine), and still another was involved in a seemingly normal relationship the audience had every reason to assume included sex (Friday the 13th Part 2). It wasn’t until psychoanalytic film critics poked their unwelcome snouts in the genre that studios, picking up on both the success of the independently produced slashers and the assumptions of the idiot critics trying to gut the genre, that the virginal “Final Girl” became mandatory. Of course, the moment the studios began backing slashers with their own money (1982 on, though I would make the argument that Halloween II, appropriately enough, put the dagger in the slasher’s independence), the genre was, essentially, dead. And yet, to this day, so-called experts parrot this tired myth about virgins vs. sluts like mindless sheep.

Despite my disappointment in failing to find commonalities that would demand the genre be considered subversive, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something anti-establishment was going on in the early films. These movies made the status quo squirm. The goody-goody motherfuckers who cheered on the new president in 1981 pointed to the gore as a reason to hate them. That, I realize, is the clue to understanding why these movies bother those in charge. Violence has always been a part of storytelling. But violence in popular narratives is usually reserved for punishing those who do not fall in line with the status quo. Hence, it was OK for Rambo or any Arnold character from the '80s to slaughter hundreds with a machine gun. They were faceless representatives of the enemy (and here the psychoanalytic critic may substitute ‘enemy’ with ‘the Other’ and I will not protest). Take note that by Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (part 4), the trend of characters being hacked up without having been introduced in any way, given any personality, becomes commonplace in the studio-backed slashers (remember the obese girl on the side of the road in F14 pt. 4? Her murder was symptomatic of the conformist mentality that gobbled up this country’s conscience in the 1980s: She’s fat. Slit her fucking throat, Jason! There’s a good boy).

The victims in the early slashers were people. We got glimpses of their personalities. The filmmakers attempted to generate audience sympathy for those getting sliced and diced. By making them real people, and then showing their bodies mutilated in a manner most Americans like to pretend couldn’t possibly happen, these films were snubbing an unspoken agreement between the masses and their masters (once the government, now corporations)—Your function is to work, consume, and die of natural causes. Sometimes our masters will send the youth off to die in a foreign country to protect local business interests. Mostly, though, you are not allowed to die until you have exhausted your usefulness as a worker who then spends his or her pittance on the very products you waste your life helping construct (today things are even worse as we become a nation of service representatives while poor folks in poor countries are assimilated to the process of work-consume-work-consume…) Why else, my friends, would suicide be considered a crime?

In short, your body does not belong to you. Sorry if you thought otherwise. Showing bodies hacked to bits suggests that someone other than our masters may determine when we shuffle off this mortal coil. That’s a no-no. That’s why those wonderful, independently-produced slashers are, indeed, subversive.

Look how long I’ve gone without writing something about digression!

Enter a small film from Spain. Pieces. 1982. Well into the age of the studio-backed slasher in America. In order to see something remotely subversive in the grindhouse or at the drive-in, you had to rely on imports. Does Pieces stand up to the imitations it intended to imitate?

Let’s go back to that bit about your body and who controls it. Ask any woman and she will tell you this is in no way breaking news. Women have known for a long time that the Man, or the system, or whatever the hell you choose to call our collective master, likes to have complete control over all the little kiddies born within their respective borders. The Supreme Court made it legal for a woman to have an abortion in 1973 and fuckers are still trying to reverse that. Why? Not only does that allow a woman to make a serious decision about what happens to her body, she is, according to the opponents of Roe v. Wade, also making a decision regarding another body. A body our master(s) will not be allowed to control unless it is born. I mention this only because the victims in Pieces, unlike most other slasher films, are exclusively women.

Pieces doesn’t fuck around with a lot of plot. There’s some sort of psychological bullshit going on—the film opens with a child putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman. Before he can put the final piece of the puzzle in (the woman’s vagina, hohoho!), his mother busts in and punishes him (A nifty way of showing how women counteract the Man’s attempt to control their bodies by controlling the male libido). She berates him and his absent father. The boy lands an axe in his mother’s skull and is then “rescued” by some law enforcement officers who are too fucking stupid to realize the kid is the killer.

The film jumps forty years ahead, to 1982. The killer has decided on this arbitrary moment to put together a human puzzle of a woman and fit it with his mother’s bloody dress (the logic problems inherent in why the son of a murder victim would have access to the victim’s dress is one of many canyon-sized holes in the plot). He cuts off a woman’s head in a park with a chainsaw to start the process. Enter the tragic Christopher George, the near-worthless cop in charge of the investigation. George, the actor, dropped dead from disbelief over how shitty his career had gotten by the early 80s. The awful dubbing in the film, coupled with his casual, uninterested performance, turn almost any scene he’s in into comedy—after a body is found cut up near a blood-stained chainsaw, he asks the coroner, “Could that have been done with a chainsaw?” It’s beyond Ed Wood terrible.

There are multiple red herrings. Paul Smith plays a hulking gardener who does everything he can to convince the audience he’s the killer. Then there’s the anatomy professor (hohoho!), Dr. Brown. When all the suspects gather (again, for no logical reason), at the site of an attack on an elevator, the one character who is not set up as a red herring is obviously revealed as the killer.

The movie is an absolute farce. It easily competes for the honor of worst slasher ever made. But it gets a few things right, and they’re worth pointing out and they make the movie, for all its incompetence, worth a single viewing:

The gore in Pieces is astonishing. It is messy and ruthless. Supposedly the filmmakers decided to use real animal blood. It certainly looks like it. In the movie’s brutal final killing, a woman is cut in half in a shower stall. When the upper half of her torso is discovered, the white walls are drenched in blood, the way you’d expect a healthy massacre to look. The attack in the elevator is graphically realistic. Even the inciting murder of the boy’s mother is shocking. We see the axe hack right into her skull. There’s an acceptable amount of nudity, which I consider essential to a good slasher. Finally, the soundtrack, provided by a band (or, I’ve read, a stock library of music) called Cam, is a simple synthesizer score that could not have come from any other era. But these things only make the incompetence of the film even more tragic. What could have been, had this puzzle been put together by filmmakers who were not merely interested in cashing in on a dying trend?

Alas, that is what Pieces ultimately is: A cheap imitation of a slasher film and an insipid entry in the post-golden age where the victims are only women (giving credibility to those critics who believed the slasher was a reaction to feminism). The “Final Girl” in Pieces isn’t even allowed to save herself. She is drugged into paralysis so that the men can save her. Any slasher that denies women in the audience the pleasure of seeing a woman defeat the monster who has been cutting (mostly) women to shreds is unforgiveable.

No, Pieces is just another opportunistic cash grab. That becomes obvious late in the movie when a cop and a student researching files to figure out who the killer is are shown in a room with a large poster of Ronald Reagan hanging on the wall. To make the moment complete, there is obvious product placement from Wendy’s. The commercialization of the slasher had arrived. Jason would rise from the dead (F13 pt.6) and become the hero, instead of the antagonist, and Freddy would evolve into a stuffed doll appropriate for children. As is often the case with subversive art, the establishment learned that banning it wouldn’t defuse its power. So they appropriated it instead. Like Nike, using “Search and Destroy” to sell tennis shoes, or that SUV commercial from a few years back that played “TV Eye” while some yuppie snowboards over the gas guzzler being peddled.

I propose that this will be my last slasher review. May I end on a bit of a digression? That glorious year, 1981, was for slashers what 1967 was for the counter-culture—a brief moment where a little bit of magic happened that irked the mainstream. How beautiful those goofy Halloween imitations look, with their porno-style lighting and synthesizer soundtracks. Their twenty and thirty-something actors attempting to look like teenagers. Their mad rush to execute the most gruesome special effects their low budgets could afford. It can never happen again. I recently watched Hatchet, which had been touted as a return to the old-style slashers. No way. Didn’t even come close. The golden age of slashers was a flash of inspired stupidity that rests in the wounds of nostalgia. There is no way to recreate, remake, or, for shit’s sake, “reboot,” them. Let’s accept the handful of originals as they are and find new ways to make our collective master angry by harming our rented bodies.

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