Exploitation movies are known for giving the audience what they are looking for. That's where the term comes from; they exploit the movie goer’s interests. In this regard, all films could be called exploitation. Certain movies are just more upfront and lowbrow about it. It doesn’t mean that they are all uninspired garbage, though. At its heart, JAWS is an exploitation movie, delivering the nudity, blood, and terror the audience craved. It’s also wonderfully acted and expertly directed. Exploitation can rise above its mandate to supply the goods. On the other end of the scale, they can also unapologetically wallow in those goods, filling the space in between misconceived, baffling nonsense. These are great, too. Case in point, PIECES.
Boston, 1942, a mother finds her pre-teen son putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman and freaks the shit out. The boy calmly listens to her shrieking, mirror smashing, anti-pornography rant and then chops her up with an axe. Forty years later, at an unnamed college in Boston (or Madrid as Boston), female students are being carved up by a mysterious chainsaw killer. Hard boiled cop Christopher George is brought in to find the murderer. He sends in a former tennis star turned undercover lady cop to pose as a tennis coach. Campus lothario Kendall, who knew some of the victims, is also included in the investigation because Christopher George “trusts him with his life”, despite just meeting him a few hours ago. Meanwhile, the killer continues to disassemble nubile coeds in pursuit of his ultimate goal, putting together a jigsaw dreamgirl from the parts. Can Tennis Cop stop the killer before her pieces are added to the puzzle?
PIECES is famous for being an early ‘80’s, ultra-gory trash masterpiece. A trashterpiece, if you will. Its reputation is well deserved. It has one of my favorite tag lines ever, “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is” (right up there with ZOMBIE’s refreshingly straightforward “We Are Going To Eat You”). And it is exactly what you think it is, to a degree. If you think it is an excuse to show a lot of blood and boobs -- and I mean a lot -- then yes, it is exactly what you think it is. As opposed to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which seemed so much more gruesome than what it actually shows on screen, PIECES leaves nothing to the imagination. Even though the kills are insanely bloody, they are also fairly quick. There are no protracted scenes of the victims suffering, and it isn’t even remotely realistic, so it’s less of the emotional barrage TCM was. The kills aren’t exactly fun, but they aren’t a bummer, either. They are supremely memorable, though.
PIECES is essentially an Italian giallo with gallons more blood. There is an unseen killer wearing black gloves. There are lots of red herrings. One of the red herrings is Paul Smith, the perpetually glaring man-mountain who played Bluto in POPEYE. Since his character Willard is the grounds keeper who is seen lugging around a chainsaw, he is such an obvious suspect that there is no way it could be him (not to mention that the shrouded killer is clearly not Bluto shaped). I wish he was the killer, though. It would have given him more screen time. Every second he is on camera is amazing. He looks at every single character with such unconcealed disdain and anger that he seems to be using every ounce of restraint not to murder them right there. I don’t think he would even need the chainsaw, he would just tear people apart with his bare hands. There should have been a spin off series just about him going about his normal day, having to deal with people at the bank or the DMV. It would have been hilarious.
I’m not going to lie, it’s not the greatest depiction of women in cinema. Most are there to be victims, and most are naked at some point. There is a moderately good role for Lynda Day George (wife of Christopher) in the form of Tennis Cop. I love that it’s never addressed how odd of a career change it is going from famous tennis star to undercover cop. Guess it happens more often than I’m aware. Anyway, Tennis Cop does play a lot of tennis (including a great crowd shot of people moving their heads left to right and back again, some out of rhythm), but she gets at least one great action scene. She’s walking the campus at night, hunting for the killer. She turns a corner and comes face to face with… a random kung fu fighter. He throws down a wave of punches and spin kicks, knocking away her gun and sending her to the ground, only to be taken down by a swift kick to the balls. As Tennis Cop is recovering, Kendall rides up on a motorcycle and says “Hey, that’s my kung fu professor.” The professor jumps up and acts like the whole unprovoked attack was just a gag. Then he runs off never to be seen again. I guess that makes sense, because… what the fuck?
Aside from that dramatic interlude, the cops are pretty much worthless. They ignore the literally gallons of forensic evidence and spend almost the entire movie aimlessly wandering around just looking for a guy with a chainsaw. They even fail at that. Several killings are done in broad daylight, the killer makes a huge amount of noise, and a chainsaw is one of the more awkward murder weapons to conceal. The murderer does manage to successfully hide it behind his back when getting into a tiny elevator with a victim, however, so it’s not just the cops who are oblivious. Christopher George does yell at a lot of people, I guess that helps?
The killer’s traumatic backstory is pretty fantastic. It’s not as much of a wild overreaction as the spurned Valentine giver in X-RAY. From the mother’s behavior, it’s clear this wasn’t the boy’s first experience with her full-on man-hating crazy bomb. It wasn’t a healthy environment to grow up in. Things were probably leading up to this for a while. His reaction is a bit extreme, but understandable. What I don’t understand is why he waited 40 years before going ape shit psycho again. After his initial mommy murder, he clearly went on to lead a successful, non-dismembering life. He rose to a respected position at Unnamed College. He’s well established in the community. People like him. And then for no apparent reason he decides to embark on a very messy quest to make a mix-and-match replacement mommy. There is one strange scene about a student skateboarder going through a huge mirror that two movers are carrying Three Stooges style, but the actual impact was only implied and there was no mention about what became of her. This is after the killer brings out his bloodstained nudie puzzle, so even if he had witnessed the (presumably) sliced up student, he was already on the Dr. Frankenstein route. Was it just really, really far down on his to-do list? “Well, finally got those gutters cleaned out, might as well get to that chainsaw massacre I’ve been putting off.”
Of course, the what-the-fuckiest moment is the last scene in the movie. SPOILER for those who like having their minds boggled. The killer has been shot and things are wrapping up when the spunky but useless Kendall discovers the sewn together composite corpse the killer was building. It falls on him in slow motion, totally freaking him out. Nice little payoff for what was only alluded to throughout the movie. The real surprise happens after he’s recovered from that shock. Everyone is leaving and he turns back to grab his jacket. Suddenly, the corpse reaches up, grabs Kendall by the crotch, and crushes his balls. The End. This isn’t a CARRIE style dream, nobody wakes up. There’s no indication why the completely non-supernatural movie now has a reanimated corpse. It’s just a squish and roll credits, leaving you to puzzle it out. As far as surprise castration endings go, that was a good one. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what you thought it was after all.