Pieces (1982)

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“You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre” declares one of the taglines for 1982’s exploitation horror film Pieces, although you would have had to be in Austin this week to see the screening of the 35mm master print, cobbled together by Grindhouse Releasing from the extant copies of the film (and from which their remastered 2008 DVD was produced). The film’s other tagline, “It’s exactly what you think it is,” is also accurate–Pieces is a solidly hilarious and gratuitously gory flick about a campus killer who murders women with a chainsaw, full of ridiculous and unrealistic dialogue that would give a more modern postmodern horror spoof a run for its money. Shot largely in Spain and set in Boston, Pieces will leave you breathless, but from laughter, not fear. This movie is a camp masterpiece, and has set the bar high as my new standard for horror comedy.

In 1942, a ten year old boy is caught red-handed putting together a jigsaw puzzle featuring a nude pin-up. Furiously, the boy’s mother tells him that she is going to burn this filth, but he returns to the room with an ax and a hacksaw and chops her into, well, pieces. Forty years later, a rash of murders-by-chainsaw are perpetrated against a number of co-eds at an unnamed Boston university, and Detectives Bracken (Christopher George) and Holden (Frank Bana) are sent to investigate. The suspects include surly groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, best known for playing Bluto opposite Robin Williams’s Popeye a few years earlier), reserved closeted anatomy professor Arthur Brown (Jack Taylor), and the helpful but absent minded Dean (Edmund Purdom). Kendall James (Ian Sera), the boyfriend of one of the victims, is also treated as a suspect initially, but is ultimately enlisted by Bracken as his on-campus liaison, leading to the younger man acting as the primary investigator of the murders despite the fact that he is even less suited to this role than he is to being the campus stud. I mean, Sera’s not an ugly guy, and his awful hair is one thing, but there are no attempts to hide the fact that he’s wearing lifts throughout the movie, and still stands a head shorter than almost everyone on screen. Rounding out the cast is Lynda Day as Mary Riggs, a former tennis player turned undercover policewoman, although she ends up having to be saved by Kendall far more often than she should.

There appears to be some contention among the fanbase as to whether or not the film was intended to be a comic film or a more straightforward example of schlock cinema; it surely features the titillating nudity and gory gross-outs of other films from the latter genre (and equal opportunity nudity at that!), but I can’t imagine anyone involved in the making of the movie could have been under the impression they were making anything other than a humorous exercise in bad taste. Some of the scenes feel like the crew was in such a rush that they couldn’t afford the time to do more than one take. The dialogue syncing is awful, the lines themselves swing wildly from tonally dissonant purple prose to over-the-top shrieks and alien approximations of police procedural patter, and one of the murder victims pisses herself. That’s not even getting into the killer reconstructing his pornographic jigsaw puzzle in the film’s present while also assembling a jigsaw woman from his victims, the running gag of Bracken and his eternally unlit cigar, an extended aerobics class sequence, and even a woman skateboarding into a sheet of glass being carried across the street by two men. This film is comedy gold, and I loved every minute of it. Just try to watch this scene and tell me that Pieces is meant to be taken seriously.

As for the plot, it’s a fairly standard campus murder spree grindhouse-era flick, and there’s gruesomeness to spare here in addition to the comedy. The mystery, such as it is, isn’t resolved until the finale, although a set/location detail we see in the killer’s house is also present in another locale that is frequently seen, meaning that sharp-eyed viewers will figure out who the killer is before the halfway mark, but that makes the film no less fun. Special mention here should go to Day, who was well known at the time of release for her role on TV’s Mission: Impossible; at no point does she break character or the fourth wall, but she’s also obviously delighted to be participating in this production. She’s a very magnetic screen presence, and I was glad to see that she is still alive, even though I wish she hadn’t retired from the screen so long ago.

My viewing experience of the film was somewhat unique, so I can’t say for certain that the 2008 DVD will recapture the same magic; I can say, however, that I intend to find it and purchase it for my personal collection ASAP. I recommend you watch this movie at the earliest opportunity. You won’t regret it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Independent (2000)

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In our attempts to crack open the mysteries behind our current Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s basic cable oddity Highway to Hell, Britnee mentioned that it was the only film she could recall that featured all four members of the Stiller clan. Thanks to a helpful recommendation from a reader (thanks Tom!) we now have another entry to add to that list. Jerry Stiller, his wife Ann Meara, and their children Ben & Amy also all appear in the 2000 indie comedy (appropriately-titled) The Independent. To discuss The Independent solely in terms of its relationship to Highway to Hell, however, would be doing the film a huge disservice. It’s so much better than that. I went into the film expecting a few decent one-off gags from the always-dependable Jerry, but I left completely in love.

In The Independent, Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an endless stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Stiller is on the same violently explosive vibe he brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”. Although Corman himself appears in the film (along with former cronies Peter Bogdanovich & Ron Howard) to offer the film a touch of credibility, Stiller’s protagonist is less of an homage to that single filmmaker, but more of a ZAZ-type spoof of the entirety of schlock directors from Russ Meyer to The Golan-Globus folks to anyone who’s ever made a blacksploitation film (and even Fred Williamson appears in the film to afford credibility on that end). Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package.

A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-soul-sister-robot blacksploitation flick called Foxy Chocolate Robot, etc. I counted at least fifteen of these schlock spoofs represented in brief clips & there are endless dozens of more ideas listed in a “complete filmography” that rolls in tandem with the end credits. Each idea plays just as well as you’d expect from a film that boasts a cast with its roots both the cult sketch comedy legends The Ben Stiller Show & Mr. Show (Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Janeane Garafalo, Brian Posehn, etc.). I don’t think there was a two minute stretch of the film when I wasn’t at least chuckling & a large part of that success was due to how well disperser these schlock spoofs are. They’re evenly spaced from beginning to end with only the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews on The Indepenent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improve-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s likely that the other Stiller clan affair, Highway to Hell, will remain in obscurity for the foreseeable future, but I like to imagine that The Independent still has a chance to achieve a cult classic status. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the shlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy. Out of respect for the comedian & respect for schlock as a medium, I plan on making this film a frequent recommendation to help keep its name alive. So, if you also have respect for either or just love a well-executed comedy sketch (or a dozen), I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. It’s damn funny.

-Brandon Ledet