Judge Paul Corupe asked for just a little off the top, but wound up with more than he bargained for with this cult classic horror film.
Just a little off the top, please.
Everything you've heard is true: Scalps is a cheap, offensively gory, semi-professional film. The kicker—it's also not that bad. For this "20th Anniversary Edition" DVD, notorious exploitation filmmaker Fred Olen Ray has put together the definitive version of his often censored, hair-raising opus.
Facts of the Case
When their archeology professor (Kirk Alyn, Superman) is unexpectedly sidelined with paperwork, six research students head out to unearth Indian relics. At a gas station along the way, an old Native American cautions the kids against disturbing a nearby burial ground where the white man once massacred a tribe. True to his word, their excavation on that spot is plagued by weird occurrences, including eerie tribal drumming emanating from under the ground. When one of the students becomes possessed by the spirit of an Indian shaman named Black Claw, the blood starts to flow and the scalping begins!
When Scalps works, it really works. Fred Olen Ray's most popular horror film is far from consistent, but is definitely a hairline above most low-budget scare flicks.
Although it was made at the height of the slasher film craze in the early 1980s, it would be unfair to lump Scalps in with this maligned horror sub-genre. This film has a spiritually-aware 1970s vibe going, which favors supernatural ambiance over unstoppable killers; much more akin to classics like The Exorcist than Friday the 13th. Despite boasting a budget less than most films spend on catering, Scalps somehow succeeds in creating an ominous atmosphere that would make Ronny Yu jealous. Barren desert locations combine with a relentlessly creepy musical score, unnerving even the most jaded horror fans. When it comes time for the blood-spattered climax, gore hounds will again be pleased to see quite a bit of time and effort went into creating the effects, which turn out much better than they deserve to be.
These elements would be assets for any low-budget horror film, but what really makes Scalps stand out is the simple, uncomplicated plot. Ray is the first to admit that he had a mid-1960s spook show called Death Curse of Tartu in mind when he wrote the script, but there are also elements of The Mummy and Herschell Gordon Lewis' pioneering gore classic 2000 Maniacs to be found here. Wherever the idea for Scalps came from, the avenging spirit of a long dead civilization makes for a surprisingly effective and straightforward premise.
Unfortunately, the technical execution of that premise is another story—Scalps is riddled with many mistakes common to low-budget filmmaking. Pacing immediately becomes an issue, as gratuitous sequences of driving and hiking pad out the running time, forcibly squeezing all the action into the final half of the film. Continuity errors abound, with poorly matched day-for-night sequences that break all known laws of time and space. Toss in characters appearing and disappearing for seemingly no reason, along with strange insert shots of tarantulas crawling on skulls, and Scalps suddenly becomes a homestretch race between "hidden gem" and "patience tester."
Those that can stick it out to the gruesome finale will find that Scalps still has the ability to surprise. How many films of this caliber would bother delving into the ethical arguments of archeology? Yet that's just what happens here, as two characters discuss the relative merits of digging up the treasures of lost civilizations. Proving that Ray spent at least one day in the library, one campfire conversation has the characters explaining that the practice of scalping was actually introduced by European settlers trying to massacre Native Americans; it isn't a "savage Indian" tradition after all! These discussions serve to justify Black Claw's murderous revenge against the white man; and the archeology students in particular. Looks like the old man at the gas station was right all along!
Most of Scalps' cast members are just as unknown today as when Ray first cast them, but there are a few notable exceptions. Ray used Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon) in his first theatrical film Alien Dead, and Scalps features another 1930s serial star in a brief role—Kirk Alyn, the first actor to don the red cape as Superman. Other cameos include Carroll Borland (Mark of the Vampire) and Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Forrest J. Ackerman, conspicuously displaying a copy of his latest book.
Scalps has seen several different VHS releases over the years, but only one contained the film's theatrical cut with all the bloody effects intact. In fact, the scalping scene was completely missing in most versions! To create this uncut DVD, Ray has cobbled together scenes from a variety of sources. The previously edited gore scenes, taken from that one VHS release, are fuzzy and almost completely washed out. The rest of the film looks better, but substantial grain is present, as the print was originally blown up from 16mm. Artifacts are plentiful, and making matters worse, some scenes were unintentionally shot out of focus. Likewise, the mono track is severely limited. Dialogue is occasionally muffled, but remains understandable for the most part. To be honest, it looks and sounds terrible, but that's part of the fun. The rough print manages to capture that seedy 42nd Street quality, and actually helps heighten many of the unsettling aspects of Scalps.
Retromedia has included several nice special features here. After watching the original trailer, you can enjoy a still gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and press materials, including (for some odd reason) a personalized 1983 Christmas card from the director. The commentary with Fred Olen Ray and Lee Lankford is the main reason you should consider picking up this disc. It's a fascinating track that goes into extensive detail about the film's lack of continuity. Ray explains how the distributors re-cut Scalps without his permission, actually splicing test footage into the final theatrical version. Anyone interested in low-budget or exploitation filmmaking will enjoy listening to Ray's anecdotes, which are occasionally more entertaining than his film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Scalps may rank as one of the more agreeable Fred Olen Ray productions, but this disc is only for diligent cult film fans. I had fun with it, but casual viewers will no doubt be turned off by the excessive gore effects or the amateurishness of the whole affair.
This is certainly the best presentation that Scalps will ever receive, and I have no doubt many ancient VHS copies scored off eBay will be tossed out in favor of this new edition. While not for every taste, cult horror and exploitation film fans will flip their lids to finally have an opportunity to see this obscure film with all its gore intact.
On my way to this trial, a wise old man in a handmade Alien Dead T-shirt warned me that ruling against this DVD would anger the spirit of Fred Olen Ray. I don't have time for such superstitious nonsense, and so I find Scalps guilty of…wait…do you hear…chanting? And what's this red stuff, dripping from my gavel?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Director's Commentary
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