It’s a strange world out there.
This 1982 Spanish-produced slasher film was advertised, at least in the United States, with the brilliant tag line: “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre.” And indeed, Pieces takes place in Boston, Massachusetts. And yet, it’s a Boston that has little relation to the Boston of the real world. (Some of that may be because, while a few scenes were filmed in Boston, the majority of the film was shot in Spain.) Indeed, one can argue that Pieces takes place in an alternate reality, one that was created with bits of giallo suspense, slasher gore, and scenes randomly borrowed from every other exploitation film ever made.
In the 1950s, a little boy wears a bowtie and plays with a pornographic jigsaw puzzle. His mother takes the puzzle away from him, which he doesn’t appreciate at all. It leads, as things usually do, to an axe murder.
In the 1980s, a college student tries to roller skate down a sidewalk, just to suddenly lose control. As she helplessly rolls down the street, two workman carrying a sheet of glass just happen to step out in front of her. Pieces of blood-stained glass fly everywhere. As is typical of Pieces, this actually has nothing to do with the larger plot of the film. We never learn the girl’s name. We never hear learn if she survived nor do we hear much else about the accident. Instead, it’s just a random incident, tossed in to illustrate that the world is going mad.
On campus, a chainsaw killer is killing students and teachers. He’s the boy with the bowtie, all grown up. He takes body parts home with him so that he can stitch them together, recreating the jigsaw puzzle that was stolen from him years before. Oddly enough, he never makes much of an effort to hide his chainsaw. He casually gets on an elevator with one of his victims. She notices that he’s carrying a chainsaw but she doesn’t say anything about it until he actually turns it on.
Dean Foley (played by Eurohorror veteran Edmund Purdom) is upset that students keep getting dismembered on campus, as well he should be. Lt. Bracken (Christopher George, barking out his lines with the same annoyed energy that he brought to Graduation Day) is also upset because he’s supposed to arrest criminals and stuff. Unfortunately, all of Bracken’s cops are incredibly incompetent. Bracken is forced to rely on the help of Kendall James (Ian Sera). Despite being kind of scrawny and unappealing, Kendall is the most popular student on campus. Kendall also knows every victim and discovers the majority of them. You would think that Kendall would be the obvious suspect but instead, Kendall somehow ends up directing the entire investigation. Kendall’s not a cop but he’s soon ordering around the veteran detectives and everyone’s okay with that. (One detective even mentions that Kendall might as well be a part of the force.)
Lt. Backen decides that the best way to solve the case is to send in Mary Riggs (Linda Day George), who is not only an undercover cop but also a top-ranked tennis player! There’s a lot of tennis in Pieces, as Mary works on her game in between working with Kendall to solve the murders. Kendall and Mary aren’t very effective though. After discovering that one victim was chopped in half in the showers while Kendall and Mary were trying to find the source of some loud marching band music, Mary lets the killer know exactly what she thinks of him.
But who is the killer? Because Pieces was as inspired by the giallo genre as the slasher genre, there are several suspects. Kendall seems like the obvious one but, for whatever reason, no one makes that connection. Instead, we’re left to wonder if maybe it could be the Dean. Or how about Prof. Brown (Jack Taylor), the somewhat odd professor who seems to be a bit repressed? Or maybe it’s the handyman, Willard (Paul L. Smith)? Willard is creepy and he works with a chainsaw! There are a lot of suspects and helpfully, after a murder at the pool, every single one of them shows up at the scene of the crime. At one point, they all even gather in the same corner and look straight at the camera. You half expect Kendall to announce, “Well, I can’t possibly solve this one! Can you?”
But that’s not all! When Kendall and Mary aren’t solving murders, they’re having to deal with all of the other weird things that happen on campus. At one point, Mary is randomly attacked by the school’s karate instructor. After Kendall shows up and explains who the man in, they all laugh it off as being the result of “bad chop suey.” Later, Kendall walks Mary back to her place and, after she rejects his attempts at romance, Kendall turns around to be confronted by another student who taunts him by yelling, “Casanova!” Meanwhile, other students are still walking around campus in the middle of the night and making plans to meet up in a room that contain the height of campus luxury, a waterbed!
(Yes, a murder does occur on the waterbed. Yes, water goes everywhere. It’s Chekhov’s waterbed. You can’t introduce it without including a scene where it gets punctured.)
Many things happen, none of which make sense. The entire film is so over-the-top in its combination of gore, overacting, and general absurdity that it becomes strangely fascinating. From today’s perspective, it’s easy to imagine that the film was actually meant to be a parody but director J. Piquer Simon has said that it was meant to be viewed as a serious thriller, regardless of how the film was subsequently advertised in the United States. Even the film’s ending, in which someone who is not the killer is randomly castrated just because, was meant to be taken seriously. Every weird moment was included to give the audience what they wanted. Audiences loved Bruce Lee so, of course, a random karate fight was tossed in. People love chainsaws so, of course …. well, you get the idea.
On the one hand, Pieces is a really heavy-handed and mean-spirited film, one in which the victims are almost exclusively women and where sex and violence are too often connected. Mary may be an absurd character but you’re happy when she shows up because she’s the one woman in the film not presented as being a passive victim. On the other hand, Pieces is just so over-the-top and absurd that it’s hard not to watch the film all the way through. Perhaps the only thing that keeps the film from being incredibly offensive is that, regardless of what the director has claimed, it is so obviously not meant to be taking place in the real world. When that plate glass was shattered, it obviously opened a vortex that sucked the campus into a world where every slasher and giallo trope has been adapted to the point of absurdity. This is one of those films that just gets more and more strange with each passing minute. You watch it and you find yourself continually thinking, “This movie can’t get any weirder” and then it manages to do just that. Watching the movie is like stepping through a portal into some sort of strange alternate reality. Just try to look away.