Scalps 1983 Review
Directed by: Fred Olen Ray
Starring: Jo-Ann Robinson, Richard Hench, Roger Maycock
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Looking back that whole video-nasty thing was really just a big anti climax. Kind of like sharing a bed with Angelina Jolie and finding out that she’d just given her vow to a nunnery. In the UK, films like Pranks and Madhouse were reputed to be so vile and depraved that the thought of sitting through one of them felt like stealing your next door neighbor’s car and going banger racing round the block. But when they finally hit shelves some twenty years later it was like, “Oh was that really what all the fuss was about?” That’s why it’s nice to come across a title that someway lives up to its exaggerated reputation. Scalps certainly delivers on the gore score and includes one or two grisly scenes that somewhat exceed the expectations of the shoestring budget. The Grim Reaper and Mystery in Rome also boasted extreme gore scenarios, but still couldn’t lift themselves above mediocrity. I hoped that Scalps could support the bloody stuff with a few decent shocks and surprises.
Six bizarrely spaced out anthropology students head out to the Californian Desert to dig up Indian artifacts. Despite a crazy Ralph-style ominous warning from an old Indian named Billy Iron Wing, they continue their journey deep into the vastly uninhabited wasteland. Whilst digging in the blistering sun, the troupe unwittingly evoke the wraith of Black Claw, the spirit of an evil renegade who died one hundred years earlier. Before long he has possessed one of the gang members and begins to slaughter the rest of them one by one. Stranded in the remote wilderness, the remaining students realize that they have to fight to survive his murderous intentions…
Fred Olen Ray tells us on the very informative DVD commentary track that the original distributors of Scalps took the liberty of editing the movie themselves in an attempt to make it more appealing to the commercial market. Unfortunately, what they did was pretty much make a mish-mash of a film that would have been a damn site more intelligible if they had just released it as the director had originally intended. That explains why we see images of the killer roaming the hills before he has even taken possession of the body that he uses to stalk his victims. Despite these unintentional blunders, Olen Ray’s slasher entry is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s horror collection. Yes it’s easy to mock the amateurish dramatics, unfocused photography and choppy editing. I’m very sure that any film critique worth his salt could quite rightly rip the production standards to shreds. It’s when you consider the fact that this is probably THE most poorly-financed of the early eighties genre additions that you have to give credit for the fact that it manages to do what many bigger budgeted efforts from the time couldn’t come close to. You see, for all its shoestring and money skimping short cuts, you just cannot deny that Scalps is still one hell of an unsettling movie experience.
The director wisely chose to mimic John Carpenter’s method of creating an eerie soundtrack and keeping it playing continuously throughout the runtime. When merged with lengthy shots of the spacious desert, a credibly creepy and extremely desolate feeling is built and sustained. The pace is a tad too slow in places, but you’re always aware that something is going to happen soon, and when the shocks finally arrive they certainly deliver perhaps more brutality than you were expecting. There’s a notorious ‘rape’ sequence included, which feels all the more mean spirited because the victim has her throat messily slashed before being scalped moments after. We also see a pretty effective decapitation that shows a plausible flair for the macabre from the director. Not many horror films can create the feeling of isolation that Scalps carries so effortlessly, and that’s why this movie in its uncut form is so severely underrated.
Unfortunately, all thie pluses don’t come without their share of problems. The lighting is no less than awful in places, which is mainly obvious because one minute the characters will be sitting around a camp fire in total darkness and then the next scene will look like it was filmed at around 6 o’clock in the morning. It’s obvious that any early eighties miniscule slasher production isn’t going to have the best lighting rig in Hollywood, but when it boils down to a handful of candles and two flashlights, questions seriously do need to be asked. Perhaps Olen Ray would’ve done better to shoot all the action in the afternoon light, instead of trying to outgrow his finances. As I said earlier, the acting is as block-like as an antique timber yard and some of the camera operators look to have turned up on the set after a 24-hour rendezvous with Jim Bean and Jack Daniels. It’s also worth noting that the bemusing tag lines on most VHS releases make this sound like some type of zombie flick. Don’t be fooled. It is 100% stalk and slash and it looks like the person responsible for the cover blurb didn’t even bother watching the movie.
Scalps is still mean and creepy enough to earn a decent three-star star rating. It is most certainly shoe-lace funded, but when you consider the fact that drivel like Trick or Treat cost almost three times as much to make, then you have to say that this is a pretty decent chunk of slasher memorabilia. It certainly has the potential to be updated and remade; there just haven’t been enough crazy Native American killers! Certainly worth a look and definitely undeserving of the 2.9 rating that it has on the IMDB
Posted on November 20, 2011, in Slasher and tagged censored, cheap as chips, creepy, Fred Olen ray, gore, Native American connection, native Indian, scalping, Scalps. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.