Troubling Themes in Slasher Horror: PIECES (1982)

Within the horror genre there exists a varied range of sub-genres, which are mostly defined by their antagonist(s): zombies, vampires, werewolves, malevolent ghosts, haunted houses, gnarly creatures, and of course, slashers. The latter came to prominence in the years following the rabid success of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. Most people are familiar with the essential tropes of the slasher film: a killer is on the loose and stalking women (mostly), most of whom lack the requisite brain cells needed to survive such a situation.

The common theme in slasher films is a denouncement of certain activities, most of which are common among teenagers: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The emphasis on stalking, antagonizing, torturing and eventually killing young women in horror films has been studied for decades. Misogyny runs rampant through slasher cinema. Women are made to suffer, usually at the hands of a crazy man.

If that wasn’t enough it’s also worth noting that the majority of the weapons the killers use are quite phallic: knife, machete, chainsaw, drill. Look at the poster and the screencap below from Amy Holden Jones’ Slumber Party Massacre:

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A young woman cowers in fear of her inevitable doom: death by a man’s drill. Need I say more?

It’s a terrific shot and you have to consider that Amy Holden Jones framed this image on purpose to illustrate the misogynistic undertone (overtone?) of slasher films. Women are always being targeted in these films. Sure, there are plenty of men that get skewered by these killers as well, but they’re more of a roadblock to the ultimate goal: the final girl.
People much smarter than me have researched and written very thoughtful articles and books on this subject, such as Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, or for a more comprehensive and historical perspective, there’s Molly Haskells’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. You should seek those out.

I just got done watching Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces (1982), a particularly grisly slasher that takes misogyny to a new level, while also sprinkling in some homophobia. The plot revolves around a killer who murdered his mother 40 years ago after she caught him playing with a jigsaw puzzle adorned with a fully naked woman.

Right out of the gate we have themes of mommy issues, absent father, and burgeoning pubescent sexuality. The puzzle will ultimately play a major role in the psyche of the killer. It also represents an important part of what I’m trying to illustrate: simply that woman are mere objects in these films and exist as subjects to the male gaze. Which is not earth shattering news, this is an established theory.

The male gaze is an element that essentially breaks women up into pieces. Women are a set of breasts (which are frequently exposed in these types of movies) or a pair of legs or a butt in tiny shorts or a bikini.

Look at these images:

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The young woman is practicing her dance routine while being watched by the killer (check the background of the middle picture: creep-o alert!), and once she senses a threat she packs up and leaves. But what enters the room when she leaves? Our plucky little killer sporting a chainsaw that appears to protrude directly from his pelvis. And, boy, does he want to stick that chainsaw in her. This is a perfect example of the undeniable sexual element to the killer/victim dynamic in these films. Bad men are always trying to stick things in women. That’s what it boils down to.

Now think about the name of the movie: Pieces.

The puzzle of the naked woman slowly assembles as the killer chainsaws co-eds and removes body parts to create his own version of the puzzle. Women are not seen as a whole, they are portrayed as an object and, as such, can be broken up into pieces.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a part later in the film where the dean of the school outs one of his faculty members as a homosexual. He insinuates that the professor is violent and struggles to cope with his “affliction”. Check these screencaps:

So we started with female objectification and we’re ending with troubling homophobia. Speaking about another’s sexual preferences in such a negative way while also chopping up women as puzzle pieces is not a good look.

And I’m not even broaching the subplot of the undercover female cop who needs to be saved by the campus Lothario. Her role is to be a scared puppy waiting for her savior, and in the end she is literally paralyzed until the men come to the rescue. It’s a little on-the-nose for my taste.

What’s funny is horror fans, men and women, love movies like this. There’s a viewpoint that thinks these movies are above critical analysis and should be left alone, but when they present such troubling themes it needs to be examined.

I’m not saying you can’t enjoy movies like this, but I felt a little icky by the time the credits rolled. It’s a nasty movie that really pushes the negative tropes and themes of slasher movies to a point that doesn’t feel fun like some of the more enjoyable slashers do. I can handle it, but I think I need a shower now.

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