Controversial! Banned! Graphic! Shocking! Boy, Nick Palumbo's second film as a director sure has the major marketing accolades attached to its DVD release. The cover art for the movie contains no less than 14 quotes from magazines and filmmakers, everyone from William Lustig (of Maniac and Blue Underground fame) to The New York Times and Variety. With all this hysterical hype promoting the horror film's ferocious, visceral vision you'd swear you're in for one of the most disturbing and disgusting terror rides of your life. Well, if you are a seasoned scare film fan, your real reaction will probably be something like this: "Wow, two original scenes...the rest, I've seen done before...and BETTER!" Indeed, Murder-Set-Pieces is nothing short of derivative in its designs, and aside from a couple of novel twists, does nothing except entice and exploit.
A jaded German jarhead known only as The Photographer roams around Las Vegas shooting softcore porn snaps. In his off hours, he entertains a local hairdresser and her suspicious little sister. Oh, and he enjoys vivisecting the unlucky models and hookers he comes across in his daily Polaroid pursuits. In a secret substrata lair in his home, he carves up girls with a chainsaw and drives nails through their flailing limbs. He hangs them up by their feet and slaughters them like deer. He plucks out their eyes and slits their throats. Then, when the meat is good and maggoty, he sits down for a little cannibal repast, complete with gratuitous nipple noshing. As more and more bodies pile up, The Photographer drives around town in his American muscle Hemi Cuda, visiting his pro-Nazi pals and cruising playground bathrooms for available pre-teen victims. This Hitler-loving loser feels invincible. It will take more than just the police to catch this creep. It will take someone intimate with his home, and its hidden Murder-Set-Pieces.
There is no denying Nick Palumbo is a gifted individual. That much is clear. His serial killer epic Murder-Set-Pieces rivals the routine material made by Tinsel Town in both its look and its logistics. This low budget ($2 million) Indie atrocity has the cinematic sparkle of a major mainstream release. The filming is first rate and the technical specs of the production, from composition and framing to lighting and acting, is miles above other homemade moviemakers. It's just too bad, really, that Palumbo doesn't have anything interesting or new to say with his obvious talent. Though it strives to be a balls-to-the-wall horror extravaganza, filled with the most brutal and repellant violence you have ever seen in your life, Murder-Set-Pieces is like a music video version of a real movie macabre. Scattered amongst its showboating and button-pushing are a couple of interesting ideas. The rest, however, is par for the pandering, perverted course.
Anyone who has seen as many horror films as this critic can tell you that Murder-Set-Pieces is hardly the most primeval and guttural film ever made. Such geek show shockers as Nekromantik and Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 are far more graphic and grotesque than anything here. What writer/director Nick Palumbo wants to do is challenge the standard slasher movie ideal to make it far more realistic, AND simultaneously surreal, as any other slice of thrill killer cinema. He couches his craziness is arcane symbolism, mindless bloodshed, a sky high body count and attempts at controversy so flagrant and noticeable that they lack any real repulsion. Instead, a great deal of this film comes off as a stupid sick joke aimed directly at those easily impressed by special effects and unwarranted theatrics.
Palumbo's main problem is that he introduces concepts into this carnage that never pay off. The constant references to the Nazis, Hitler and the Third Reich (even the production credits bear a nod to the tainted Teutonic regime of the 30s and 40s) are never linked to the crimes. We keep waiting for The Photographer to spout some kind of concentration camp connection to the secret slaughterhouse he has in his house, yet all we get are family photos featuring the Fuhrer and a push-up montage/exercise routine backed by footage from Triumph of the Will. Then there is The Photographer's relationship with the hairdresser character. This pointless romance, which consists of sex and the occasional cold shoulder, is really just a plot development, a chance to give the sister - who will become our tween heroine - a clear connection to Mr. Camera. It's all a set up so that she can eventually infiltrate the villains den of iniquity and pseudo save the day. Yet even this last act action scene falls flat, with illogical elements competing with facets unseen to destroy any suspense or terror (pray tell, what do those shots of 9/11 have to do with a schlocky horror film, huh?).
When he does try for something novel, Palumbo mostly misses. His use of several horror Hall of Famers - original Leatherface Gunner Hanson, Ed "Hitchiker" Neal and the cool Candyman himself, Tony Todd - is fun, but they are really given nothing to do and are mostly just sleepwalking through their scenes. Then there are the homages to other horror films, references to everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to Tenebre and The Toolbox Murders. They are either so obvious and out of place that they spoil the narrative drive, or they are so sly and secretive that only a true maven of the movie macabre would notice them. Granted, when The Photographer takes a chainsaw to a woman's head - ala Scarface - and we then pan back to see the blade bisecting her skull, it is a killer shot (in both senses of the word). Equally effective is the taboo taunting (and slaying) of children. This verboten variable in modern horror has been going on long enough. It's nice to see a psycho whose not age specific with his slaughter.
Still, Murder-Set-Pieces is just the standard mass murderer material filtered through a post-modern mindset in love with the gratuity, not just the grue, of the genre. If Siskel and Ebert were wetting themselves about the violence against women in the 1980s, they'd have a flaming field day with this nonstop exercise in babe battery. The females in the film are interchangeable plastic surgery disasters, strippers and hookers who are never given a moments mention as individuals. They are just grist for The Photographer's flip flopping fetishes. Even the main characters are carved out of icons, not individuals, given no import other than as plot fodder. In the end, we feel totally disengaged from everything Palumbo is forcing on us. He's not actively attempting to entertain or enrage us. Instead, he's letting his own mutated mindset seep across the screen in sickening, static set pieces. The result is an illogical mess of mindnumbing proportions, a cinematic ipecac that almost purges your preference for horror completely out of your psyche. It is accomplished and quite professional in approach and appearance. But Murder-Set-Pieces is dull, soulless slop that never achieves the level of shock that its filmmaker is feeling.
Presented in a nice, clean 1.85:1 letterboxed presentation, this DVD version of Murder-Set-Pieces would be one of the best transfers on the digital medium except for one minor flaw - it is non-anamorphic. While this will bother the bejesus out of 16x9 freaks, the rest of us will simply have to make due with the blatant black bar version. This is still a fine looking image, however, with wonderful color correction and tight, detail-oriented contrasts. The abundant blood occasionally looks black, and the overuse of mood lighting can render some scenes indiscriminately unrealistic (too many neons and gels in the cinematographer's bag of tricks) but overall, this is a great looking release.
Palumbo is a director who believes that the aural as well as the visual canvas is equally important to a film's success. There is a great amount of spatial ambiance and angst-producing atmosphere in the Dolby Digital Stereo 5. 1 Surround mix. The dialogue is easily discernible and there are several instances of channel separation and immersion. Together with the terrific print, this is an excellent technical package.
While not loaded with bonus content, the DVD version of Murder-Set-Pieces will make fans and aficionados happy. The full length audio commentary featuring Palumbo, actor Sven Garrett (The Photographer) and Ultra Violent Magazine Managing Editor Art Ettinger is a full blown ego-fest, the kind of unchecked self-aggrandizement that really detracts from the film's few bright spots. When you have a trio basically falling over themselves in praise of this barely passable pile, pontificating on how it matches the best of Argento, contains the scariest slasher scene ever, and deserves all the infamy and glowing critical acclaim it received, you just want to take the DVD remote and smash it through the home theater speakers. Palumbo is ragingly narcissistic, in love with the smallest element of the film and bad mouthing members of the cast and crew that didn't see eye to eye with his amazing vision. Garrett adds a few interesting bon mots, while Ettinger leads the discussion, trying to keep it on the production and people involved. Overall, there is some intriguing information here, but all the backslapping and ass kissing gets in the way.
As for the rest of the added features, we are treated to an introduction to the film by Palumbo (genial and genuine), a selection of deleted scenes (none really vital to understanding the film or its facets) a few trailers for Palumbo's oeuvre and galleries containing behind the scene stills, poster art and something called "The Gallery of Outrage". Basically, all the blurbs from the front DVD cover are included in this text-based collection of comments, and while it's interesting to read some of the reactions to the film, one has to wonder why they've been included. What does Palumbo, or the movie's viability for that matter, gain from having this material here? Opinions are just that - judgments and beliefs. Nothing set in stone either pro or con.
As part of his alternative narrative track, Palumbo argues that Murder-Set-Pieces is positioned less as a standard slasher film and more like an artistic comment on terror and true crime. It's supposed to push buttons and divide audiences. If that is indeed the case, he has succeeded here. Anyone wanting to see the latest in pompous putrescence should quickly run out and pick up a copy of this claret-covered corpse fest. All others, including horror mavens not easily impressed with obvious attempts at encouraging outrage will be satisfied with a recommendation of Rent It. There are easily nastier, more nauseating films in the homemade movie canon than this excuse for sex and violence. You may want to decide for yourself. But Public Enemy was right when they said "don't believe the hype". After all, such ballyhoo is the carnival barker of the DVD domain - and very rarely does the actual cinematic sideshow live up the outrageous spoken spiel. Murder-Set-Pieces is mildly interesting, but it has a long way to go to gain the terror title it so readily grabs for.
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