“To Hell with the book. The book says get the killer.”
Cult classic horrors are a special breed. While I often see the appeal, I don’t always find them winning me over. The disconnect lies between those laughing at themselves and those that aren’t. I appreciate the former because the comedy is intentionally applied for enjoyment. Since laughter and fear go hand-in-hand (just listen to the giggles following most jump scare jolts of shock), it enhances what’s happening rather than distracts. The opposite is true for the latter as my laughter arrives at the detriment of what the filmmakers hoped to accomplish. When a film is desperate to deliver dramatic terror, it craves a reaction that isn’t simply me rolling my eyes. Sadly that’s all I could do while watching Juan Piquer Simón‘s Mil gritos tiene la noche [Pieces].
If the problem was just bad acting, I could look beyond it. That’s not the case here. What makes Pieces so bad is the script from Dick Randall and Roberto Loyola (aka “John Shadow”). While they have a handle on crafting an intriguing mythology to build upon, their execution of its present-day relapse is all over the place. You don’t have to look further than the effective opening scene depicting a young boy on his bedroom floor putting together an X-rated jigsaw puzzle to see potential. The imagery is disquieting as he puts each piece in his mouth while singing “Humpty Dumpty” and chaos ensues when Mom catches what he’s doing. She screams threats of murder (“You’ll become just like your father!”) and he replies with an ax.
Add the psychopathic genius of his playing the victim for police to not raise suspicion beyond a homicidal intruder sparing his life and the set-up truly captivates. Fast-forward forty years and we settle in our seats to wait and see what triggers this now grown-up predator to kill again—if he ever stopped. Unfortunately, that’s not what Randall, Loyola, and Simón care to provide. Rather than construct a history for this killer and give us something substantive, they remove his identity altogether. The prologue becomes inconsequential beyond inferring that the boy is now inexplicably seeking to re-make his mother with body parts of fresh victims. Why now? No answer. Where has he been? Apparently living a normal life. Why should I care? I honestly never did.
Overlong (and I mean overlong) segues showing the “Man in Black” putting that old puzzle together become our only link to his past. We never hear anymore about his father or aunt—both specifically mentioned by the woman who found his mother’s head in the closet. We never find a connection between this new town and the old one. And we never learn how his switch from assumedly regular citizen to maniac was flipped. The interstitial displaying “Forty Years Later” disappears and we move directly to another death at the end of a chainsaw. From there another murder and then another. The victims are relatively nameless, the motivation to pick them simply a byproduct of convenience. Our only mode of engagement becomes guessing what character is behind it.
Enter the plot flubs, randomness, and abject stupidity. One potential candidate is easily crossed off because he’s the obvious red herring. Another is dismissed early after being shown with different shoes than the killer via a quick cut (the film still tries to milk him as a probable fit an hour later anyway). We hope the answer will prove totally out-of-left-field like one of the cops assigned the case (Christopher George‘s Lt. Bracken and Frank Braña‘s Sgt. Holden), a complete stranger, or somehow a girl on campus we assume to be the next victim, but we’re not that lucky. The murderer proves exactly whom you think with little fanfare or relevant connection to his past. Everything onscreen happens to deliver bare breasts and dismembered body parts in blood.
The appeal beyond this graphic nature is the audience’s ability to laugh at how bad the whole is. I’m sorry, but that does not make it “good.” If you listen to Simón’s commentary, he explains how none of his actresses knew how to play tennis so he hired someone to teach them how to lob properly for authenticity’s sake. He legitimately spent budget on Lynda Day George‘s Mary Riggs hitting the ball up in the air so it looked real. Anyone who’s ever watched tennis knows that’s idiotic. We are watching her swings go high off-screen and somehow reach her opponent’s waist at mid-court the next cut. This supposed professional is shown serving from mid-court too. It’s cringe-worthy. I couldn’t laugh because all I felt was second-hand embarrassment.
Why does a professional tennis player have a day-job filing at a police station and how is she assigned an undercover case on a college campus with a murderer running wild? Why would her boss (Bracken) have one of that college’s students (Ian Sera‘s Kendall) watch her back to keep her safe? Why would he let Kendall do anything? Even his partner is incredulous about it because the boy is technically a suspect in the second murder. There’s no opportunity to suspend disbelief because there’s never a reprieve from that disbelief to give the film the benefit of the doubt. Each character is inept straight down to a random Kung Fu aficionado attacking an unsuspecting woman, getting kicked in the groin, and calmly walking away as everyone smiles.
Paul L. Smith as the groundskeeper Willard is sufficiently suspicious and creepy in his brute force. Jack Taylor‘s Professor Brown is drawn as a sociopath through his hyper-literal demeanor. And Edmund Purdom‘s college Dean is impossible to trust from the start. If not for Simón’s inability to always undermine his own mystery by proving two of these three couldn’t be the killer, we might put them all on even-footing. Day George’s Riggs is horribly written as being simultaneously tough and weak depending on what she’s needed to be and George’s Bracken is pretty much shown to have a hard-on for co-ed Kendall. As for Sera’s amateur sleuth, one could say his penis is the killer because it appears to mark those about to die. Maybe it is!
Thankfully the death scenes are good. Whether in the swimming pool with a skimmer or the bathroom with a chainsaw cutting into a girl’s midriff, the bloody aftermaths are memorable. Decapitated heads, appendages wrapped in plastic, and nude torsos set upon the floor almost make the rest worthwhile. But then lines like, “The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time” enter to remind how it’s all for naught. Not even the out-of-nowhere ending devoid of context—there’s zero plausibility on a purely fantastical level too as everything had thus far been rooted in reality—beyond last-ditch effort to scare can excite. Pieces is a series of bad decisions that sex and gore crazed fans believe possesses value.
Watched in conjunction with Season Two of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.