Murder Set-Pieces is an independent horror movie that comes with a mighty big reputation – an unprecedented three color labs turned it down for processing once they saw some of the footage; it’s been slammed in the mainstream and genre press for being the most misogynistic torture film ever made; and in contrast it’s been lauded as a masterpiece on par with the best of the 70s Italian grand guignol.
To say your expectations might be high when you slip Murder Set-Pieces into your DVD player would be an understatement. When the ends credits roll, you might be thinking to yourself: “What’s all the fuss about?” (At least, you will if you’re as jaded a viewer as I am.)
The opening credits promise a stylistic approach to the look and feel of the film, which is not sustained. The movie is definitely more Vincent Gallo than Dario Argento, in that it has a more cinema verite, matter-of-fact vibe than the suspenseful, artistic or intricate giallo feel some of the advance press might lead you to expect.
The movie opens on a nameless, taciturn 30ish German photographer (Sven Garrett), living in Las Vegas. When he’s not “shooting girls” he proudly drives his dark blue muscle car, collects Nazi memorabilia, works out with weighty barbells, trolls porno bookstores and strip clubs, and maintains the photo shrine to himself he keeps on his basement wall.
His basement is also a soundproof torture chamber with all manner of restraining devices: a wooden chair and with arm and leg belts, chains and hooks hanging from the walls, and shackles bolted to the walls. He’s got a full palette of pain, including everything from paring knives to chainsaws. The walls, ceiling, floor and furniture are saturated with blood of all ages from dried to congealed to freshly pooled. Rats, maggots and flies feast on female bodies also in various states of decay.
The Photographer’s girlfriend, a hairdresser named Charlotte (Valerie Baber) who's raising her two little sisters, has no idea of his extra-curricular activities. However, savvy 12-year-old Jade (Jade Risser) smells a rat, and she’s not afraid to say so. No charming, seductive, intellectual Hannibal Lecter he, The Photographer is a terse, rude, narcissistic openly hateful man. He doesn’t seem particularly rich, nor is he good-looking, so how does he maintain not only a girlfriend, but a string of sexy nude models who serve as an endless buffet to his deadly appetites? The puzzler is addressed in a dialogue scene between Charlotte and Jade, but the answer is ambiguous.
Ambiguity is a biggie for writer-director Nick Palumbo, according to his words on the DVD commentary. I tend to appreciate ambiguity over abject certainty too, but in this case it simply didn’t make sense for the story. Tantalizing tidbits are dangled like carrots on a stick to explain what makes The Photographer tick, but in the end they lead nowhere. In the DVD commentary, Palumbo states, “Hey, sometimes things happen for no reason at all.” I can dig that, but when you’re watching the movie without commentary, the disconcerting randomness isn’t played up enough for you to realize that’s what’s going on.
The violence is graphic, brutal and ghastly, but as I mentioned previously, it’s not suspenseful or cringe-inducting. There’s no suspense because we don’t identify with the victims (as we do in Hostel), nor do we identify with the villain (as we do in The Devil’s Rejects). There’s a clinical, detached approach to the proceedings. Although I’d almost like to say that the murder scenes are similar to what you’d see in John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family as far as the exploitation angle goes, it’s not quite like that, either. It’s more like watching cattle being slaughtered. I felt apathetic and unaffected by it all and to me, that is not an interesting or intriguing movie-going experience.
That’s not to say Murder Set-Pieces is a bad film. It’s not, by any stretch of the twisted imagination. The dialogue is excellent (even though not all of the actors are up to the task), and the non-murder scenes have a very 1970s independent film vibe. Las Vegas is a defined character in the film, as are the many set-pieces. The music (score, and original songs) is perfect, and the cinematography is competent and workmanlike.
Cameos from Gunnar Hansen (The original Leatherface) and Tony Todd (Candyman) are welcome diversions, bringing a more heightened, cinematic feel to the movie, but in all honesty they don’t fit in with the flow of the story.
The idea that it is the character who’s misogynistic (actually, he’s more a misanthrope) and not the movie, is crystal clear. What is not clear is, if The Photographer is a wannabe Nazi, why’s he killing all the blue-eyed blondes? Just one of life’s ambiguous imponderables, I guess.
The director’s cut, from what I could glean from the commentary, shows more nudity, torture and gore. Since -- to me, anyway -- those were the least interesting aspects of the film, I would have preferred a more succinct end product. Still, Palumbo is obviously a smart, well-traveled, well-read man and it’s a good, solid commentary, rounded out nicely by Sven Garrett and moderated by noted horror journalist Art Ettinger.
Murder Set-Pieces is recommended for the fan of unvarnished exploitation grue; for those needing a little more style with the substance, dig deeper into your Argento collection.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson