by Iloz Zoc
Around two-thirds into Murder-Set-Pieces I looked at my watch. I don't do that often when watching a film. In this case, though, I looked at it twice. I really wanted to get it over with, and, unlike some reviewers less meticulous (or masochistic) than I, I always watch the whole movie just to make sure I don't miss anything that remotely resembles art, or scares, or anything that stands out as a memorable horror-moment. I was disappointed that I didn't find anything like that here.
At the end of the movie I sighed with relief and wondered what I ever did to the staff at The Haunted Report to warrant them sending me this emotionless and tensionless excursion into the mind and actions of a one-dimensional, neo-Nazi, muscle-bound serial killing photographer prowling Las Vegas for his next torture-gig photo shoot. America's Top Model has more tension. Maybe I should send the staff a fruit basket for the holidays. Then maybe they'd send me the A stuff.
While many of the reviews for Murder-Set-Pieces mercilessly castigate director Nick Palumbo as a misogynistic this or racist that, that's not quite the vibe I picked up. He's just doing what any director does — telling his unsavory story through the camera lens. I actually thought Palumbo did a solid job of direction, but just made some questionable choices with the material, like his confusing use of ill-placed, tinkling music, flashbacks and shock-montages into the fractured mind of the nutbag photographer, or the spin-art overuse of blood on everything in sight. Then there's the bordering-on-comic way he'd cut to the photographer driving in his Mustang, again and again, prowling night-time Las Vegas for more nudie-cutie opportunities, with the same overused audio of the car's engine racing and sputtering.
But the most important directorial misstep here is the lack of tension-building suspense and the pedestrian way in which each murder-set-piece is handled. At no time are any of the tortures or murders the least bit shocking, the least bit emotionally draining. We follow the photographer around, as he bounces off the padded walls of his mind, as if we're carrying his equipment bag and nothing more. And when he whips out that straight razor, there's no fearful whimper from us, no gasps. Perhaps I'd have been more drawn in with the uncut version of the film, but Anchor Bay's R-rated DVD only implies defilement and torture, and cuts away from the chainsaw-through-head type of chunky violence gore-hounds love. So gore-hounds be warned: look for the uncut version if you are so inclined. As for me, I'd rather have more meat and less sauce.
Which brings us to the storyline itself, which is less meaty and less filling than a horror movie should be. Due in large part to Sven Garrett's lifeless performance as the photographer with too much killing time on his hands. Even though he suffers from manic bouts of shouting in German, and nose-bleeds as he flashbacks in weird vignettes with him as a boy walking train tracks while a flirtatious blonde parades in front of him, while his look is right, that's where his energy for the role ends. When he pumps iron, all sweaty and gritty, he still doesn't pump enough energy to light a diode, let alone a performance that cries out for psychotic, balls-to the-wall-abandon. His torture and killing sprees are monotone, with the only lively color coming from the blood all around him. So what if he likes to eat his meat raw and bloody? Without the gusto, it's just undercooked.
Even the cameos with Gunnar Hansen and Tony Todd do nothing to fortify the film. Hansen, playing another neo-Nazi crazy, sells the photographer a gun, and Todd, who manages an Adult Video store, tries to throw him out after he asks for a snuff film called Nutbag (an in-joke reference to Palumbo's other film).
The hidden torture-death playroom he uses to humiliate and terrorize his victims is a caricature of a hidden torture-death playroom, and doesn't generate an atmosphere of dread anticipation and fear. Way too much red blood is spattered over everything, making it more of a demonic Pee Wee Herman's acid-trip induced idea of what a playroom should be. While it does reflect a bit of a 1970s gleefully repellent grindhouse sensibility, with naked, hanging upside down and chair-bound women, it fails to elicit feelings of disgust or shocks of horror. Palumbo and Garrett show no finesse in the fine art of building and sustaining tension, even when the chainsaw comes out for some head-scratching the hard way.
The plot motivations also lead to some head-scratching. When the photographer's girlfriend pines away for him after he breaks off the relationship, he's such a lifeless kind of guy, you wonder where her tears are coming from. Even her little sister knows the guy's a creep and good riddance. Even after the break-up, he's still stalking the kid, watching her from his Mustang. When the kid complains, her big sister doesn't want to hear it; so she steals the spare, creepy-freaky guy's house key, begs a total stranger to drive her to his house, and lets herself in — to do what, exactly? Why didn't she just go to the police? What, the Vegas cops too busy to follow up on one more psycho? Especially when they've got a trail of dead bimbos across the strip? That's when I looked at my watch a second time.
The ensuing encounter between her and him, as he's all bloodied-up from playing with another hapless victim, is devoid of terror and suspense. There was no build-up leading to this encounter, so when it comes, it plays out without fanfare or intensity. When she hides under his bed — apparently the kid has never seen a horror film — I rolled my eyes in disbelief, and when she runs back to the playroom to hide — you know, the no-exit, basement torture-chamber soaked in wall to wall blood and nicely decorated with his recent kills — I doubted Palumbo ran his script through the reality-checker first.
The ending leaves the photographer with a headache and a sequelization antic that could spawn another film, and the blood-spattered, and hopefully wiser kid, walking down the highway in shock.
She wasn't the only one.