Here’s another oddball #31DaysOfHorror entry– oddball in that you can’t replicate it at home.
Closing night of the recent MondoCon convention featured a live re-score of “Pieces,” which is a pretty atrocious early 1980s slasher movie. The live re-score was performed by Umberto, who (alongside Antonio Maiovvi) performed the live re-score of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that was a personal highlight for me at last year’s con.
This screening / live re-score was a bit of a different animal.
I was talking to Jay, who designed the poster for the live re-score event (which I won’t post here because holy not safe for work, Batman), about the movie. I was telling him that I had never seen it. Here’s a deeply edited version of that conversation. This is a pretty concise explanation of the problems with this movie:
Jay: The concept for the film is totally great, but it’s cheap and too mean for me.
Keef: Ah, too mean is a heartbreaker. I have a hard time with horror movies that are legit mean. Like, Last House on the Left style mean.
Jay: Well, it’s not quite that cruel… but it’s still, I dunno. I watch Profondo Rosso or Four Flies On Grey Velvet and I feel like I’m getting wrapped up in a horror mystery. I watch Pieces, or New Year’s Evil, or Happy Birthday to Me, and I feel like I’m supposed to be jerking off to murder porn. Same level of violence, different vibe… [Think of this screening as] a great concert with super violent dumb images playing behind it.
That’s how I tried to approach the screening. I know how incredible Umberto’s music can be. He does a deep, driving synth rhythm running in tandem with Carpenter-esque instrumental bits. And believe me, he didn’t disappoint. I had a great time. I’m sure at least part of that was the nature of the event– unlike Texas Chainsaw last year, this year they wiped the film soundtrack out completely, meaning that there was zero audible dialogue. In that context, it seemed like a silent movie. Because I kept thinking about it like a silent movie, and the dialogue was unavailable, the overacting became acceptable, and almost necessary.
It was still more problematic than last year’s live-score screening.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a masterpiece. It’s indisputably one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Tobe Hooper managed to wrangle together a bunch of disparate elements and come up with an atmospheric, weird, deeply terrifying film. There are moments of humor– the hitch-hiker, Franklin’s constant whining and complaining– but these seem to be intentional. Hooper clearly has a respect for his characters and their situations, horrible as they may be. The actors, while amateurs, manage to give good performances (undoubtedly enhanced by good editing).
Pieces, on the other hand, is a giant steaming piece of schlocky trash. It’s a smorgasbord of boobs, dingdongs, and gore, with no respect for its characters. It was pretty clearly put together in a hurry. None of the actors are worth a damn. The dialogue is terrible. It doesn’t even really have any internal consistency, and there’s a tacked-on surprise ending that’s so absurd I can’t even begin to dissect it.
All of those qualities alone aren’t a dealbreaker for me. I have a lot of love for a some “so bad it’s good” movies. As long as they have a sense of fun running throughout, I’m all in. If I can infer from your art that you’re having fun, it makes it a hell of a lot easier for me to enjoy the thing.* The problem with Pieces is that it seems pretty joyless for a lot of its running time.
There are moments of goofy hilarity, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this movie has a lot of moments that earned some laughs. A martial arts demonstration comes out of nowhere. A “tennis pro” is so terrible at tennis that she nearly misses the ball on her serve half the time. The killer gets onto a tiny elevator with a woman, and then slowly pulls the chainsaw out from where he’d been holding it hidden behind his back.
The problem is that right after these moments, the movie gets right back into the humorless pornographic murder.
At one point, a woman is being menaced by a chainsaw, and the camera slowly pans in to her crotch, so the director can better show us a (far too long and lingering) shot of her losing control of her bladder. Ugh. Yuck. In another scene, a tennis player is being stalked by the killer, who slowly and methodically chases her through a locker room right after she’s taken a shower, and then saws her to bits.
On the surface, it’s hard to explain what exactly makes this so drastically different in tone and feel from something like Slumber Party Massacre 2, another 80s slasher flick. The plots (as with most slashers) are similar– an insane man chases a bunch of scantily-clad women through the movie and murders most (or all) of them. In Pieces, the weapon of choice is a chainsaw; in Slumber Party Massacre 2 (hereafter shortened, because I don’t want to type that out every time), it’s a custom electric guitar with an enormous drill on the end of it. I’m not about to watch these movies again with a stopwatch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if SLM2 had a longer run-time for both gratuitous nudity and murders. And yet, SLM2 is a movie that I adore.
That’s partially due to pedigree– it follows Slumber Party Massacre, which was written by Rita Mae Brown, and therefore dodges some of the most anti-feminist sentiment of a fair amount of slasher movies– but not wholly. There are protracted musical numbers, which add levity, but it would be nearly as good without them. There’s a campy attitude, and ridiculous 80s makeup and hair, and the whole thing is just goofy as hell. Watching it, you really get the impression that they wanted to have fun with the whole thing. But that’s not the dividing factor– there are other “serious” horror movies, with no sense of humor or campiness, and those can be great.
I think it must just boil down to intent. I have no problem with a horror movie committing gruesome murder. Gruesome murder can make for the most effective horror. But I need either sympathy with the victims, or righteous comeuppance (as when the murderer dies in the end). In Pieces, as Jay neatly stated earlier, there doesn’t seem to be either sympathy for the victims or righteous hostility for a bad guy– instead, it seems to be taking sadistic joy in the pain and murder. Which isn’t okay, unless it’s mitigated or dampened or lessened, by fun, or quality storytelling, or campiness, or something.
Anyway. I didn’t mean for this to become a weird exegesis of 80s slashers, and I know that this particular debate is well-worn territory. This tangent was mostly for my own edification, both to defend and justify my fondness for some examples of the genre, while admitting that some of them can be… well… less than savory.
*NB: This is different from “liking things ironically,” which I don’t believe in as a concept. You either like a thing or you don’t. You can like a thing and still recognize that it’s flawed, or ridiculous, or amateurish. You can’t find a thing meritless and then claim to like it ironically. If it’s meritless, you can’t like it by definition. If you like something, dude, just admit that you like it.