MURDER SET PIECES (2004)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on January 3, 2005, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Murder-Set-Pieces is a sick, repellent and ultimately offensive movie—and no, I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment, though writer/director/producer Nick Palumbo and his distributor would no doubt take it as one. This is the kind of film that works so hard to be sellable as “Shocking! Controversial!” that it forgets—or doesn’t bother—to include anything else of interest.

It’s also the kind of movie that some people like to call “daring,” except that in a sense, this is the safest type of horror filmmaking there is. No attempt need be made at creating a story, characters or a point; just string together a series of atrocities, and you’re guaranteed a certain amount of attention, praise from those for whom gore is the be-all and end-all of the horror experience—and negative publicity (and you know there’s really no such thing). In this case, Palumbo has been making much of the fact that his film was rejected by three top processing labs in LA because of its extreme content. Well, fine, but he would have received the same response had he submitted child porn—and to be sure, his use of children in Murder-Set-Pieces is practically pornographic in its own way (more on that later).

At least you can’t accuse the movie of having a misleading title. Murder-Set-Pieces is just that: a series of increasingly graphic butchery tableaux (almost all females, of course), perpetrated by a character known only as “The Photographer” (Sven Garrett). It’s fitting that he’s given such a generic handle, since he’s largely a collection of standard-issue serial-killer tics: He has flashbacks to a troubled childhood with a slutty mommy, works out till he’s grunting and sweaty, slaughters hookers and strippers because he wants to cleanse society of evil, yadda yadda yadda. The only attempt at a fresh wrinkle is the fact that he’s the grandson of a Nazi and thus sometimes rants in German, but that doesn’t really inform his pathology in any meaningful way (after all, some of his tall blonde victims look pretty close to the Aryan ideal); it’s just another signifier that he’s a Very Bad Person. Toward the end, Palumbo works footage of the burning World Trade Center into one of his nightmares, but it’s a meaningless gesture, a hot-button image designed to get a knee-jerk reaction out of conservative viewers.

The murders themselves are equally calculated to outrage, and become more grisly and sadistic as the film goes on. Yet because there’s no attempt to develop characters for any of the young women before they’re raped, tortured and killed, and because the movie views them the same way the villain does (as objects to be leered at and then destroyed), there’s no genuine terror evoked, just the queasy sense that we’re being asked to identify with the murderer. In this context, the fact that most of the victims are prostitutes or nude dancers is both a copout and distasteful. No need to be concerned about these women, the movie seems to be saying—just enjoy their naked bodies, and check out what we can do to them with special FX makeup!

The movie really hits bottom when The Photographer begins adding little girls to his hit list. Again, this has nothing to do with the motivation for his mania; how his desire to rid the world of sin leads him to murder preteens is beyond me. It just plays as if both the killer and Palumbo simply got bored of targeting adults, and decided to go after kids. The results—one young girl being savagely hacked up with a butcher knife, and another being slashed on her face and body with a straight razor—are among the most repugnant scenes in recent memory, and raise troubling thoughts about not only Palumbo’s state of mind, but that of the parents who would allow their children to take part in a film like this.

This bloodshed, it seems needless to say, isn’t strung together with anything resembling a plot. The closest the film gets is sort of a subplot involving a young woman named Charlotte (Valerie Baber) who’s dating The Photographer, and whose more perceptive little sister Jade (Jade Risser) can’t convince her that the guy is bad news. None of this is remotely plausible; it goes unexplained why Charlotte is so hung up on such an obvious creep, or why Jade, who’s terrified of him, would nonetheless go searching through his house in the middle of the night—after hitching a ride with a weird motorist played by Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Ed Neal. Other horror-celeb cameos include Chainsaw’s Gunnar Hansen as a sleazy mechanic (who’s got a Nazi flag in his living room—hey, he’s a Very Bad Person too!), Cabin Fever’s Cerina Vincent as one of the only girls who doesn’t take her clothes off (and is thus allowed to live) and Tony Todd as a porn shop proprietor in an over-the-top sequence that seems to have wandered in from a Troma production, and allows Palumbo to repeatedly plug his previous movie Nutbag.

It all adds up, sadly, to a film that seems designed precisely to elicit reviews like this one. Murder-Set-Pieces is essentially critic-proof; call it on its repulsive qualities, and you’re playing right into its creator’s hands. It’s a shame, too, because Palumbo is clearly a moviemaker with a good deal of technical facility, and Murder-Set-Pieces has a polish well beyond many such homegrown horror productions. But his material is hackneyed, misogynistic and, frankly, dull when it’s not indulging in savagery, and it’s motivated by the misguided idea that all that’s required to create “the ultimate horror film” is to out-grotesque anything that’s gone before. The returns are diminishing, and the results are depressing. Caveat emptor.

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