What’s that you say? You’ve never seen Pieces? Well you’ve just got to. It’s an 80s cult slasher that slices, dices and has one of the best opening sequences in all of horror. It’s also a lot more than that – especially if you’re a giallo fan, adore Argento and DePalma, and understand that horror is, at its core, a sensory experience wrapped around a memory-making machine.
The first two and half minutes of Pieces are guaranteed to make your head explode. Scene: Boston, 1942. Pan from a clapboard exterior to a playroom where little Timmy plays with a puzzle. But not just any puzzle. A nekkid lady puzzle. Naturally Mother walks in and right as he’s about to lay down the crotch piece. A slap, a “Filth!” and a “Just like your father” later, Timmy does what any sexually curious boy with a sexually repressed mother would: plants an axe in her head, saws her to pieces, and blames it on an intruder – but not before sucking on a corner piece and finishing the puzzle.
Pure. Horror. Gold. For these scenes alone, Pieces earns its place in the Horror Hall of Fame. And we haven’t even talked about the waterbed scene.
Flash forward four decades. A pair of hands sheathed in black leather gloves opens a drawer and pulls out a box. Contents? Mom’s blood-soaked dress, high heels and her picture, conveniently marked with a bloody “X.” We don’t know it yet but the gloved hands belong to a grown-up Timmy and guess who still loves puzzles? Fondling these fetishes triggers a series of grisly murders until two amateurs (a co-ed and a tennis star turned cop) help veteran detectives solve the case.
Suddenly, Pieces isn’t just gold; it’s giallo.
Giallo: The Bloody Cliff Notes
If you’re new to the giallo, a little history. Italian for yellow, the genre takes its name from the yellow-covered pulp detective novels made popular in Italy around 1930. Their tropes made the jump to film in the hands of such maestros as Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, the Bavas (Mario and Lamberto), and in particular, Dario Argento. His essential gialli feature what Pieces also contains:
∙ Leather-gloved hands
∙ A mystery killer (often in trench coat)
∙ Fetish objects linked to past murders that trigger new ones
∙ Bumbling detectives
∙ Amateurs who help solve the crime
∙ And enough beautiful dead ladies to raise Poe from the grave
Argento puts a giallo puzzle together better than anybody and with visual and phonic landscapes that are simply stunning. If you’re a fan, this is where Pieces really pays it forward. Like so many European films, Pieces is dubbed. As the scenes tick by and new characters file in, you may not recognize the actors’ faces but you’ll know their voices like the back of your hand.
No fewer than four of the voiceover actors in Pieces worked Argento films (see below). Early suspect Willard is Kazanian from Inferno. Nosy reporter Sylvia Costa is Mater Tenebrarum, also Inferno. The Dean’s secretary, Grace? Olga from Suspiria. And last but not least, the ever-memorable Cop #1 – dubbed by Nick Alexander, who lent his voice and sound engineering talents repeatedly to the Argentoverse and dozens of other Italian horror flicks
Let’s Be Detectives
You don’t need to have seen Blow Out, Pieces or a single Argento film to understand the thrilling familiar. Simply stated, it’s the magic of recognition that every horror fan loves: an abiding excitement for cross-reference and the predictable images, themes and sounds that keep the genre paradoxically new. The thrilling familiar is knowing that kids who kill will kill again. That Blow Out itself is a throwback to Antonioni’s Blow Up (another detective story based on the vivisection of art). And that the same voiceover actors might crop up in dozens of your favorite gialli. The thrilling familiar is rooted in nostalgia: a love for what we love. Reverb and psychoacoustics – the persistence of sound and the psychological effect of it – are the very nectar of horror.
Horror stays fresh in the face of a million repetitions because it’s a sensory experience, triggering what Proust called “the immense edifice of memory.” And auditory triggers can be just as powerful as visual ones: The themes from Halloween and Psycho. The revving of a Texas chainsaw. A well-placed Wilhelm Scream. In Blow Out, Jack Terry knows that great horror relies on great sound. He knows you need it to solve a mystery. And that sound can be both cause (blow out/gunshot) and devastating effect (death/art).
Catherine Lacey writes: “When a musical repetition is fully established, the breaking of that repetition evokes an epiphany.” We horror fans need both. We need Michael, Jason, Freddy, Jigsaw and all their blessed sequels. When they get stale, we need The Blair Witch Project and Scream, Happy Death Day and Get Out.
Either way, let’s keep being detectives – whether we prefer the mystery or the thrilling familiar that lives inside it.