A plot description can make Pieces sound like any other slasher movie. It certainly draws influence from the prototypical works: A young boy brutally murders a family member in the prologue (Halloween,) then we cut to 40 years later, where he terrorizes a campus of sexually-excitable teenagers (Friday the 13th) while armed with a chainsaw (Massacre.) And the interstitial sequences aren’t exactly idiosyncratic either: wackily-placed non-sequiturs show off the usual collection of scantily-clad women, in aerobics classes (backed by pop music) or behind closed doors (saxophone.) But there’s something amiss here, in a way that’s not typical for the genre. Something must be off beyond the general details—because this is one ridiculously-odd cheese-dream of a slasher film. Occasionally a subgenre is reheated so often that it finally just explodes. Watching Pieces, you get to witness that happen.
And during this weekend, you’ve got new places to see it. The Coolidge Corner Theatre will be screening a 35mm print of the English-language cut of Pieces (tonight and tomorrow at midnight,) to commemorate the occasion of the film’s first Blu-ray release next week (courtesy Grindhouse Releasing.) Call that a halfway-homecoming: though the movie has an Italian lineage (it was produced by exploitation-cinema stalwarts Dick Randall and Edward Montoro) and is officially classified as a Spanish production (having been shot in that nation by director Juan Piquer Simon,) Pieces claims Boston for its blood-soaked setting. That’s what the title card says, anyway. First it’s “Boston, 1942.” Then it’s a scene where a preteen boy mercilessly murders his mother with an axe, because she dared to confiscate his prized naked-woman jigsaw puzzle. Then it’s “Forty Years Later,” where the boy is a black-gloved adult, chopping up campus coeds into life-sized puzzle pieces. It’s tempting to say all the resulting weirdness must be the result of confusion wrought by a multi-national production. But what follows would curl lips in any language.
The Boston seen here is a residential neighborhood characterized by large campus grounds, but it’s of little matter that the city being depicted doesn’t resemble our own. Pieces seems to take place on an entirely different planet—one that’s governed by even less logic than Earth. The community’s response to the chainsaw murders (which turn every of-age male into a suspect) would make even the looniest cartoons look sane. Police Lieutenant Bracken (Christopher George) immediately reveals a irrationally rusting attitude: “I don’t want to wait for the coroner’s report,” he says while staring at one sawed-up corpse, “so will you give me yours instead?” He’s asking potential-killer Prof. Brown (Jack Taylor) at that moment, and later the same Lieutenant is revealing the identity of undercover cop/college instructor/tennis professional Mary Riggs (Linda Day) to wannabe-student-detective Kendall (Ian Sera,) merely because the kid seems interested. Kendall goes on to volunteer with the cops (whenever he’s not shacking up with other students,) while Mary collects other clues (though she often finds herself traumatized into a blithering state of being,) and the Dean (Edmund Purdom) organizes a comically-illegal conspiracy to keep each murder unreported (even lying to the Boston Globe.) This all while chainsaw-murders continue at a rate of once-per-reel. Consider it a credit to the film’s expertly-curated wack-job tone: the scenes where bodies are flayed by power tools are the most “normal” sequences in the whole movie.
Director Simon visually separates the film into three modes. When we see the killer stalking his victims, it’s from a first-person perspective, with the black gloves creeping into the frame as though they were our own (a strategy inherited from the prior decade’s noir-influenced giallo films.) When we see the violence itself, it’s shot in close-up’s that glamorize the gored-up body parts as though they were items on a burger joint’s menu (recalling the standard tenets of post-Halloween slasher cinema.) And when the dialogue plays out, we see things from standard-issue compositional setups, with the camera stationed at a back wall and the actors arranged in front of it (which only recalls bad television.) Constant shifts between the varying aesthetics push Pieces even further into the realm of the whatsit, leading to a chase-scene conclusion that mixes and matches between all three. Then it’s the finale, featuring an infamously illogical last shot. There’s another credit to Simon’s radically absurd direction: by that point, nonsense seems totally normal.
Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray release is just as polished and respectable as Pieces isn’t. If you receive the limited edition currently available for pre-order, the extras will be throwing themselves at you even before you play the discs: there’s a 16-track CD soundtrack included on the side, as well as a booklet featuring two essays, and a highly-impressive replica of the film’s mind-perverting jigsaw puzzle (they’ll be raffling one off at each of this weekend’s midnight screenings, so collectors take note.) On the two Blu-ray discs themselves, there’s hours more: an audio commentary track (featuring actor Jack Taylor,) a “live audience” track (recorded when the film played the Vine Theater in the 2000s,) and two nearly-hourlong interviews (one with actor Paul Smith, and another with the director,) among numerous others special features and multimedia knickknacks (including trailers, a brief audio interview with one of the producers, and some cameo-laden Easter eggs.)
In point of fact, the release includes an additional feature-length movie: Calum Waddell’s movie-going documentary 42nd Street Memories, which studies the sort of unrepentantly dingy theaters that gave Grindhouse Releasing its evocative name. As for what exactly that name evokes, the documentary has it covered: independent genre-cinema luminaries like Joe Dante, Veronica Hart, and Larry Cohen are present (among numerous other cult favorites) to talk about the sociocultural circumstances that made 42nd Street into the place to see a disreputable movie in post-60s New York City. Taking it one step further, you could say the documentary’s inclusion contextualizes all of Grindhouse’s meticulously-prepared special editions: these releases are tributes to an atypically spirited filmgoing experience—one that’s been expired for long, and has been disrespected for even longer.
With their weekly “After Midnight” program, the Coolidge Corner Theatre serves a related charge. Grindhouse Releasing outfits its ostensibly-lowbrow catalog with canon-worthy home video releases—and the Brookline movie palace does the same for theatrical exhibition, playing oft-undervalued genre favorites in glorious auditoriums and with world-class projection. It’s certainly not a grindhouse, but the theatre tries to meet these movies somewhere in the middle: scratched-up trailers and old-timey bumper ads often precede the features, deliberately muddying up the immaculate atmosphere. Simon’s film deserves—demands—such treatment. And Coolidge Corner program manager Mark Anastasio assures us that his team will provide it: “We will be going for the most authentic 42nd Street grindhouse experience possible—only without the urine smell and the stabbings.” If they live up to the promise, the night should be as joyously baffling as Pieces itself.
PIECES. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATER. 290 HARVARD ST. BROOKLINE. FRI 2.26 AND SAT 2.27, MIDNIGHT. UNRATED. 35MM. $11.25. BLU-RAY AVAILABLE AT ONLINE VENDORS AND RETAILERS ON 3.1.16.