by Steve Habrat
In the 1980s, the horror genre was besieged by an array of drive-in and grindhouse slasher movies. Among the numbers were hockey-mask clad madmen, scarred dream-world psychopaths, and slumber party massacres, but the bad boy of them all had to be 1982’s Spanish bloodbath Pieces. Directed by Juan Piquer Simón, Pieces is one of the most savage and downright hilarious slasher movies from the movement—one made all the more likable through its flaws in logic and it’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust. Boasting the gruesome taglines, “It’s exactly what you think it is” and “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre,” Pieces goes for the jugular vein with its violence, never cutting away from the skin-shredding brutality and chainsaw carnage that fills the screen. It’s a treat for those who absolutely adore their exploitation films with geysers of gore and an abundance of topless babes sprinting around as a chainsaw growls just inches behind them. While it may not be nearly as terrifying as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pieces is a extravagant effort that continues to win over cult horror buffs with its ominous synthesizer score, fluid attack sequences, cheese-filled dubbing, and shriek-inducing climax that leaves your jaw cemented to the floor.
Pieces picks up in 1942, with a young boy named Timmy assembling a puzzle of a nude pin-up girl. As he quietly and harmlessly snaps the pieces together, his mother walks in and erupts in anger at the boy, threatening to burn the filth Timmy is playing with. In retaliation, Timmy grabs an axe and proceeds to gruesomely hack his fuming mommy up into bloody bits. The police and a concerned neighbor soon show up on the scene and find the seemingly terrified and innocent Timmy hiding in the closet. Many years later, a bloodthirsty madman is running loose on a college campus in Boston. As the body count rises and the campus shudders in fear, a hardboiled police lieutenant, Bracken (played by Christopher George), partners with an enthusiastic college student, Kendall James (played by Ian Sera), and a beautiful undercover agent, Mary Riggs (played by Lynda Day), who is on campus posing as a tennis star, to identify the murderer before more bodies turn up. As the group investigates the horrific crime scenes, they discover that the shadowy killer is claiming various severed limbs from his victims and assembling a macabre work of art.
As unintentionally hilarious as Pieces may be, much of the film’s appeal is drawn from the rivers off blood and gore that flow forth from the screen. About as exploitative as you can get, Pieces contains unflinching violence that is off the charts—opening with a hair-raising attack with an axe, and following it up with a nasty beheading, a very messy pool encounter, a simultaneously goofy and savage attack in an elevator, a waterbed stabbathon that splashes blood all over the audience, and a topless chase that culminates with a chainsaw tearing a poor girl in two right after she wets herself out of fear (According to some members of the cast and crew, the poor actress actually did urinate due to a real chainsaw being shoved into her face. Simon must have loved the hell out of reaction, as he left the girl’s accident in the film). To give the film an extra gross-out edge, Simón instructed his crew to use pig carcasses for specific scenes, adding a blunt-force realism to the up-close-and-personal shot of a buzzing chainsaw separating a girl’s lower half from her top half. While much of this carnage is stomach churning, overblown, and about as gratuitous as you can get, the real shock comes in the final moments of the film, when Simón effectively reveals what our silhouetted antagonist has been up to with those body parts he has been claiming. The surprise won’t be revealed here, but it’s a stitched-up science project/warped work of art that acts as the cherry on top of this strawberry sundae. And just when your heart slows to a normal rate, Simón springs one more surprise that is gloriously out of left field, vaguely channeling the final supernatural minutes of 1980’s Friday the 13th.
And then we have the performances, all of which are extremely over the top, made even more ridiculous through the ham-fisted dubbing that Simón applied in post-production. Ian Sera is fine enough as our curly-haired hero, Kendall, who gets involved with the case after one of his gal pals bites the dust. He develops a fast friendship with Lt. Bracken, who practically makes him an honorary police officer in seconds, and a far-fetched relationship with Lynda Day’s Mary, the gorgeous undercover agent who struts around campus as a tennis pro. Much of Day’s performance relies on her good looks, but her unforgettable “bastard!” moment is pure cheese you can’t help but chuckle at. Together, they dash from crime scene to crime scene, as squeamish cops recoil is disgust and vomit all over their shoes. Christopher George ultimately blends in with the woodwork as Lt. Bracker, the veteran cop that is always one step behind the killer. Hulking actor Paul L. Smith stops by as Willard, the suspicious groundskeeper who pummels a room full of cops and grins maniacally to himself as he cleans the chain of his chainsaw. Another shady cast member is Edmund Purdom, who is present as the campus dean, an oily suspect in the morbid case.
While Pieces aims at being a nauseating slice of terror, this little exploitation gem works much better as a sleazy little laugh riot. The synthesizer score sets the spooky stage nicely in the opening credits, but that gritty sense of unease is quickly sacked by a skateboarding chick smashing into a mirror, a leering glimpse at a aerobics/dance class set to a pure 80s robotic tune, the killer attempting to “conceal” his chainsaw on a cramped elevator, and Day’s nighttime encounter with a wandering kung-fu instructor who ate some “bad chop suey.” And then there is the bottomless pit of female nudity, which is certain to keep male eyeballs ogling at the screen. Any chance that Simón gets, he’s coaxing his female victims to shed their tops as they run for their lives from the figure pursuing them. Overall, the horror may be scarce, portions of it may not make a lick of sense, and the performances are borderline embarrassing, but cult fanatics and exploitation aficionados are guaranteed to adore Pieces simply because it is a 90-minute orgy of excess. This is one of the sickest and most fun grindhouse movies around.
Pieces is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Among the many sleazy horror subgenres out there, one of the most popular of the late 1970s and ‘80s was the slasher film. Grindhouse theaters and rundown drive-ins were bombarded with masked psychos wielding a number of assorted kitchen utensils or power tools ranging from machetes, cutting knives, chain saws, meat cleavers, and more. While major Hollywood studios were only responsible for a small number of these slasher films, a good majority of them were released through small independent studios looking to capitalize on the popularity of films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. Many of these films were artless and depraved, riddled with senseless blood, guts, and gratuitous nudity—things that were not heavily present in any of the films that inspired these knockoffs. Today, a large number of these cheap exploitation slashers are lost in the sands of time, but there are still some that have amassed respectable cult followings. One such cult slasher would be director William Lustig’s 1980 exploitation classic Maniac, an urban nightmare that appealed to 42nd Street crowds due to its unflinching violence and gore. While it may not enjoy the popularity of, say, Halloween, Maniac is still popular enough that it finally earned itself a remake makeover. Now we have director Frank Khalfoun’s Maniac, a surprisingly harrowing, disturbing, and frighteningly vicious horror film produced and written by French horror director Alexandre Aja.
Maniac places us in the shoes of Frank Zito (played by Elijah Wood), a soft-spoken loner who manages a mannequin shop that was left to him by his abusive late mother, Angela (played by America Olivio), who also worked as a prostitute on the side. Traumatized by his mother’s treatment towards him, Frank takes to the streets and stalks down beautiful young women who he murders and scalps with a hunting knife. One day, Frank meets a young upcoming photographer named Anna (played by Nora Arnezeder), who is interested in photographing the mannequins inside Frank’s shop. The two immediately strike up a friendship, but soon, Frank takes a liking to the beautiful artist. One evening, Frank and Anna go on a date to the movies, but after the date, Frank is devastated to learn that Anna has a boyfriend. Frank struggles to maintain the friendship, but after humiliating encounters with Anna’s boyfriend, Jason (played by Sammi Rotibi), and her mentor, Rita (played by Jan Broberg), he snaps and looses his tiny grip on reality, which puts Anna in serious danger.
Where most horror remakes refuse to do anything new or inspired with the material they are updating, Khalfoun’s Maniac dares to get creative with its style. The original Maniac was told in a fairly straightforward manner, although, we were asked to root for the bad guy of the story, something that does indeed make the viewer’s skin crawl. Maniac 2013 asks the same thing of the audience, but it takes it a step further and presents the action from the POV of Frank. The idea that we are peering through Frank’s eyes is undeniably creepy, and since we are inside his head, we are unable to escape from his demons. At times, Khalfoun blurs the picture, distorts sound, or descends into the surreal, offering up rattling hallucinations that really do a fine job of showing off Frank’s unstable condition. This POV presentation also gives the violence a razor-sharp edge that really cuts you deep. Each and every time Frank jabs his knife into one of his victims, you’ll desperately want to close your eyes. The violence is shockingly realistic, and it is shown in all of its revolting glory. It’s so graphic that even Frank looses his lunch after murdering one poor girl. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
Since the story is presented from Frank’s point of view, you may wonder why a high-profile star like Elijah Wood is involved with this small project. The few glimpses that we get of Frank are in reflections, where we are exposed to the glazed-over trance that he seems to float around in from day to day. His reflection presents a boyish face, drawn in innocence that suggests that he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Obviously, we know better, but armed with those puppy eyes, we know Frank is capable of fooling a lot of people into thinking he is completely harmless. Wood uses his physical appearance to his advantage, but his performance is wounded by his line delivery, which seems very mechanical and staged. The problem could stem from the dialogue, which is embarrassingly clunky and refuses to roll off the tongue in a natural fashion. As far as the other performers go, Arnezeder’s Anna is the ray of hope that Frank is desperately in need of. When she reveals she has a boyfriend, we certainly feel the dagger driven right into Frank’s heart, but we fear for her when he finally falls off into the abyss. Olivio certainly makes you raise an eyebrow as Frank’s prostitute mother, who forces him to hide in the closet while she has a threesome. Rotibi is spot on as the testy Jason, Anna’s boyfriend who takes an immediate disliking to Frank and viscously accuses him of being gay.
In addition to the impressive POV style and unnervingly realistic violence, Maniac 2013 also benefits from an awesome retro soundtrack that is sure to get stuck on repeat inside your head. Composed by French musician Rob, the soundtrack invokes an early ‘80s aura, sounding like a mash up between the dreamy notes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, the triumphant synthesizer blasts of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the urban beats of Nicholas Winding Refn’s throwback thriller Drive. With the soundtrack transporting you back to 1980, Khalfoun uses it to intensify the film’s urban grit. You almost feel like you’re on the grimy midnight streets with the homeless hiding inside camping tents, club kids drunkenly stumbling out of dance clubs in search of a blackout hook-up, and wandering hoods with their faces suspiciously concealed. All of this is sure to scare you away from wandering darkened city streets ever again. Overall, while the film’s dialogue could have used some major attention, Maniac is still an unexpectedly chilling walk in a madman’s shoes. It’s respectful of the original film while also setting itself apart from what Lustig delivered back in 1980. Maniac is stylish, chilling, and wildly grisly horror remake that is sure to disturb even the most hardened horror fan.
Maniac is available on Blu-ray and DVD.