Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Juan Piquer Simon’s exploitation slasher has a bonkers reputation that precedes it, delivering one of horror’s most entertaining audience experiences of all time. The tagline, “It’s exactly what you think it is!” only scratches the surface of the weirdness within. Sure, you get exactly what you expect in terms of gore when it features a jigsaw puzzle-obsessed killer with a chainsaw, but the execution is so over the top there’s nothing that really prepares you for the madness within.
Simon was initially approached to helm The Last House on the Left sequel, but passed because the script he was offered seemed too boring. Then he was offered a 30-page treatment for Pieces, then titled Jigsaw, an intended to be a made for TV movie. It was so insane that not only was he intrigued, he was determined to make the script believable. Which makes me wonder just how insane this synopsis actually was on paper, because the final film is far from believable.
Opening with a 10-year old Timmy assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a nude woman, his mother walks in and yells at him about it. In response, he grabs an axe and hacks her to bits. The police find him in a closet, covered in his mother’s blood, and he blames some mysterious intruder for the murder. Cut to 40 years later, an unseen Timmy unboxes that same puzzle, and a wave of murders at a college campus begins anew, with the police stumped by the grisly murders.
On paper, that sounds normal enough, but what transpires is anything but normal. It’s a whodunnit type slasher where the story doesn’t really seem interested in the mystery. The red herring is arrested immediately, without even giving much reason as to why they were a suspect in the first place. You get so caught up in the violent dismemberments that you forget you’re supposed to wonder who’s behind The Shadow inspired disguise. There’s also one of horror’s most infamous scenes randomly injected in the film; the kung fu instructor battling one of the undercover cops in the middle of the night for no reason at all, other than producer/co-writer Dick Randall also happened to be producing many Bruce Lee type martial arts films and Simon wanted to pad out the runtime when actress Linda Day refused to do a sex scene.
Most surprising of all, though, is that for how gory the film is, the body count is surprisingly low. Including the opening scene, Timmy racks up a kill count of 7 dismembered victims. But every single one amasses a ton of blood and gore, as taking chainsaws to limbs is apt to do, and most of the gore effects involved pig carcasses and real slaughterhouse blood and organs.
There’s been a long-standing rumor that part of why Pieces is so over the top gory is because one of the writers is Joe D’Amato, of Video Nasty Anthropophagus infamy. It’s an unsubstantiated rumor, with Simon confirming in multiple interviews that D’Amato hadn’t been involved in the film. Dick Randall did co-write with Roberto Loyola, though, an Italian producer, writer, and director with a talent for casting Giallo films.
Pieces has everything you could ever hope for in exploitation slasher cinema. Gratuitous nudity (both male and female), insane carnage, goofy dialogue like “BASTARD! BAAAAASTAAARD! BASTAAARD!” and an overall sense of gleeful reckless abandon makes for a film that’s one of the goriest slashers of the ‘80s, but one that still makes for a perfect crowd pleaser 36 years later. The insane final shot of the film proves it.