This is an age old puritanical argument often lobbied by Christian groups as well as censorship and decency laws which I’m not always on board with outside of rare occasional exceptions: can a film be inherently evil and reprehensible? Sure it’s just a movie, sure it’s just manmade and depicting a fictional staging of what we see onscreen. Sure it’s only serving up old fashioned shock value by providing the bloodthirsty viewer (usually myself included) with pure unadulterated violence and brutality with the fervent glee of a sideshow geek.
Being an avid consumer of all forms of cinema ranging from the G rated to intolerable transgression, nothing should phase me. There was a point where I was obsessed with A Serbian Film, not so much because of the content but because it was told in such a masterful and technically proficient fashion. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the great nonjudgmental character studies of our time. Salo is the work of a great artist at a moment of artistic crisis in his illustrious career. I even sat through the terminal August Underground movies, familiarizing myself with Toe Tag Pictures’ ongoing efforts to promote their visual effects technology despite the films’ obvious lack of anything substantive to say. Let’s not get started on the rampant animal cruelty exhibited by Ruggero Deodato or Umberto Lenzi’s pictures. Needless to say, I love extreme movies that push the envelope in search of something we haven’t seen before and never thought I’d be on the opposite side of the fence…until now.
Shock is inherently always going to be an important aspect of the cinematic medium and how it is used will illustrate the difference between art and trash. With all of that in mind, the question then becomes at what point can a film cross that thinly veiled line of what’s acceptable in film and what isn’t? With Nick Palumbo’s utterly vile and hateful 35mm serial killer shock fest Murder-Set-Pieces, it is safe to say for good or for ill, the line is no longer thinly veiled but instead is easily identifiable. The story of a German photographer played by Sven Garrett who shoots erotica by day before raping and murdering prostitutes at night, it begins and ends there. The rest consists of porn actresses in the nude being penetrated, mutilated, tortured and degraded with lip smacking glee, often for extended periods of time. Then it gets into exposing child actors to sex, nudity, violence and graphic murder. Not even hardcore BDSM pornography is this degrading to the cast members unlucky enough to be involved in it, some of whom tried and failed to get their scenes cut when they found out the hard way just the kind of puerile exploitation they unknowingly agreed to be in.
There was a heated debate over parents allowing their children to participate in A Serbian Film, a film that depicts graphic child rape including of an infant. While obviously designed to shock and horrify, everything in that film was created through the power of editing where none of the child stars were exposed to anything. It was an illusion created through craftsmanship and blocking. With Murder-Set-Pieces, seemingly over and over again, Nick Palumbo places his child actors and the graphic murders in the same shot together, clearly exposing minors to things they shouldn’t be exposed to. There’s a point in Murder-Set-Pieces where a woman is killed and the serial killer picks up a sobbing and screaming infant, smearing blood on her face before letting her go as she runs sobbing up to her dead mother. Reportedly this scene was shot with the real mother on set and the fear and trauma the child experienced was indeed very real. Even with all the wallowing in wall-to-wall rape, murder, mutilation and tortures, it is that one scene with the infant child covered in her mother’s blood sobbing her heart out that solidified Palumbo’s reputation as one of the most unprofessional sideshow geeks who ever picked up a camera. The irresponsibility of this one scene is staggering. No amount of cameos from horror icons like Gunnar Hansen or Tony Todd will dispel that view.
Worse still, it just so happens editor Todd C. Ramsay (Star Trek: The Motion Picture; The Thing; Escape from New York) has his name on this thing and will forever have this abomination on his resume. Moreover, at least five different composers have their name on this including Necrophagia, Zombi, The Bronx Casket Co., The Giallos Flame and Eric Galligan, making it something of a smorgasbord to listen to. To be fair the 35mm cinematography is far classier than it should be thanks to Tromeo and Juliet, Terror Firmer and Citizen Toxie director of photography Brendan Flynt, giving Toe Tag die-hards a clearer view of their effects work than what the VHS tape footage in August Underground afforded them. Technically speaking the effects work is well done and very realistic looking but the problem is between Fred Vogel’s films and now Nick Palumbo’s, there isn’t much more use for them than pure shock value. Rick Baker and Greg Nicotero have created some of the goriest images the silver screen has ever seen but you can make a valid argument that all of their creative efforts were put to valuable use.
According to Palumbo, Murder-Set-Pieces got him in a lot of trouble before, during and after it was made. Like A Serbian Film, film labs refused to develop the material. Unlike that film however, police were called on the filmmakers multiple times after screams from porn stars emanated from a basement and officers found quite a horrendous sight. Palumbo even did some jail time over it. Further still, Murder-Set-Pieces was refused classification outright in the U.K. and a limited director’s cut was issued before Lionsgate released an R rated cut which removed over twenty-three minutes of footage, making it the most heavily censored film in cinema history. It is worth noting the director’s cut includes a new opening of footage of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks intercut with footage of naked women nailed to chairs in between panic and trauma defecating because, why not? Anything to offend whether there’s an iota of insight behind that or not.