Matty takes a look at an important early work by the late, great exponent of straight-to-video erotica.
Prior to setting the tills of video stores the US over a-ringing with his monumentally successful erotic thriller, Night Eyes (1990), Hindi director Jag Mundhra was busy proving to American investors that he could craft commerically minded B-pictures with a quartet of scrappy but charismatic murder mysteries. Of the four — in order: Open House (1987), Hack-O-Lantern (1988), THE JIGSAW MURDERS, and Eyewitness to Murder (1989) — it’s The Jigsaw Murders that best hints at the kind of thirsty potboilers that would quickly become Mundhra’s stock trade, the helmer spiking this ragged yet engaging whodunnit with a hearty dollop of smut conducive to the world of XXX photography in which it’s set. What’s more important, though, is that The Jigsaw Murders is the first Jag Mundhra picture to present the late auteur’s trademarks — albeit in an embryonic, much looser form than in subsequent masterworks like Last Call (1991) or Wild Cactus (1993). Still, they’re all here: the incidental humour; the erratic pacing that swings from easygoing stroll to full pelt sprinting; the earthy fascination with human sexuality; and the eccentric, weirdly off-kilter mood that only a foreign filmmaker offering their interpretation of American genre fare can ever seem to conjure (ie. Paul Verhoeven).
With The Jigsaw Murders, it’s as if Mundhra has ODd on a pile of police procedural TV shows before trying to filter everything into a workable screenplay. He’s ingested every contrivance and cliche and tried to understand why they’re so overused and so heavily relied upon by exaggerating them to the point of absurdity. It’s the same approach he’d apply to the copious scenes of simulated humping in his subsequent output, wherein such dressing as candles and softly billowing curtains appear even amidst the seediest of plots; ludicrously romanticised images ripped straight from the perceived ideal of what a sex scene — a love scene — should be, but starkly contrasted by moments of death and deception. Here, we’ve got the drama of the detective with a troubled home life (Chad Everett, who has a strained onscreen relationship with his aspiring model daughter, Michelle Johnson); the soapiness of his rookie partner’s upcoming nuptials (Michael Sabatino); and suspense when a quirky photographer-cum-limb-lopping psycho (Eli Rich) slithers free of arrest on a technicality. The narrative thrust is whether Everett and Sabatino can stop the bastard before he kills again.
Of course, it’s total nonsense, and as The Jigsaw Murders rattles along, it feels more and more like it’s going to derail rather than end. However, the mounting hysteria is part of the fun, particularly when Mundhra tips the film into classic scuzz-schlock territory a la Visiting Hours (1980) and Don’t Answer the Phone (1981) and has Rich — in a wig that would make Nic Cage baulk — start beating and stabbing people with wanton abandon, squawking about murder being his “art”. Stylistically, Mundhra matches the craziness with a wealth of energetic camerwork. It doesn’t always gel (some shots smash into each other rather than cut or transition), but Mundhra’s desire to place movement into nearly every shot lends a real sense of swagger to The Jigsaw Murders. Furthermore, the wry accents he places on lines such as “erotica is not pornography” and “with any luck, I can finally get out of the skin game once and for all” tingle with a metatextual prescience that seems to indicate that Mundhra knew exactly where his career would take him.
USA ● 1989 ● Thriller ● 97mins
Chad Everett, Eli Rich, Michael Sabatino, Michelle Johnson, Yaphet Kotto ● Dir. Jag Mundhra ● Wri. Allen B. Ury, from a story by Jag Mundhra
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