Director: Juan Piquer Simón (Spain). Year of Release: 1982
Boston, 1942. A young boy is singing “Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall” and doing a jigsaw. His mother comes behind him, glances at the jigsaw and looks appalled. On the jigsaw we see the picture of a naked woman. She orders him to gather up his jigsaws and the dodgy magazines he has in his drawers as she’s going to burn them all. The boy leaves the room briefly, before returning with an axe. He bludgeons his mother to death then chops her into pieces. Blood is everywhere.
A neighbour rings on the door, with no reply. The phone rings. Eventually, the neighbour calls the police who break the door down. First they find a room full of blood, then the dismembered woman’s corpse. After searching for a while, they find the boy, cowering in the cupboard. As the police take him into protection, the neighbour says that his father’s in Europe in the air force, but there’s an aunt somewhere. Cue opening titles followed by the caption “Forty Years Later”.
You cannot accuse Pieces (alternative title: Chainsaw Bastard) of understatement. Following the bloody opening scene, bodies continue to pile up. A skateboarding woman piles into a giant mirror being taken across the road by a couple of removal men. A teenage girl invites a lad to the pool for underwater sex, but by the time he gets there she has been chopped into pieces. A similarly aged girl who is sunbathing suffers a similar fate, the victim of an over-zealous gardener.
The University where most of this is happening is wary of bad publicity and tries to hush up what is happening. So too, for less obvious reasons, do the police. Maybe it’s because there only seem to be two people working for the entire homicide department in Boston (population: over half a million). Things get so bad at one stage that they solicit the unpaid work of one of the students, even though he’s still a suspect for murder.
The film contains so many signifiers to the early 1980s that you first think it must be a satire created many decades later. All the girls have Farrah Fawcett haircuts and do Jane Fonda workouts. In one frankly bizarre scene, the martial arts professor jumps out in a tracksuit and proceeds to carry out a number of kung fu moves before being swatted to the ground. And yet the film was released in 1982 (if you believe IMDB) or 1983 (as listed in the end credits).
1982 was also the year that the term “video nasty” was coined. The Video Recordings Acr of 1984 banned 72 films in Britain – 16 of these were released in 1981, much more than any other year. One big reason for this was that for the first time, working class people were able to afford VHS recorders. I remember visiting friends’ houses to watch horror films which (1) were hard to find in mainstream cinemas, and (2) they wouldn’t let us in to see anyway.
This means that Pieces was made when some film makers were more motivated by transgression than secondary matters like plot, dialogue and coherence. Endless scenes of intense violence were seen as something cathartic, or as a big fuck you to censorious society, or even as funny, because they were so unlike contemporary cinema (in the first 4 years of the 1980s, the best film Oscar was won by bland films like Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi and Terms of Endearment)
For these reasons, it is not sufficient to reject Pieces simply because it is badly written, badly acted, and riddled with non-sequiturs and bizarre pieces of plot development (why exactly is a champion tennis player working for the police, and why does she believe that she can work unnoticed in the school? When music starts playing in the tennis court, why do people first look for a phone, then suddenly stumble across the equipment to turn the music off? Who signed off on this drivel?)
The dialogue and acting is so bad that this must be deliberate. AT this evening’s showing, people were laughing along with every miscued line, and yet it seemed clear that they were laughing with the film, not at it. Even the person I went to said that she was pleasantly surprized by how funny it was. Now there is just one thing worse than someone explaining why they didn’t find something funny (which is explaining why they think it is funny), but I’m sorry, but I just didn’t get it.
At the risk of being that old man who sees that something is happening but doesn’t know what it is, let me try to explain. There is nothing wrong in and of itself with self-consciously bad acting – some of John Waters’s early films can be hilarious if you approach them with the right attitude and blood-alcohol level. But if bad acting and incomprehensible plot is the only joke in the whole of the film, then it can become very tiring very quickly.
There is also a much more serious criticism. The early 1980s was not just a time of strange haircuts and video nasties. In my home town, the Yorkshire Ripper was murdering mainly young women, while other women were curfewed by the police. I hate to be a party pooper, but I don’t think extreme violence against women is funny, especially if most of them are barely clothed. And I don’t think that the humour of this film can work without finding such violence funny on some level.
Not everyone sees it this way, including some people who have consistently fought against domestic violence. So maybe the problem lies with me. And maybe, if I’d just understand exactly why any of it was supposed to be funny, I could have got past the brutality against women bit. But I just didn’t get it. Was it supposed to be satire? If so, what was it satirising? For me, it was just badly acted men enacting brutal fantasies against young pretty women. Haha. But what do I know?