SCALPEL (1976) Blu-ray
Director: John Grissmer
Arrow Video USA

Before the director of BLOOD RAGE hacked off limbs and sliced bodies in half, he took a peek under the skin with the Hitchcockian "Southern Gothic" SCALPEL, on Blu-ray from Arrow Video USA.

Upon the death of his wealthy father-in-law, Georgia plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing, ISLAND CLAWS) learns that the entire estate has been left to his own daughter Heather (THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS' Judith Chapman) who ran away one year previous after witnessing him murder her boyfriend and pass it off as an accident. When he nearly runs over a stripper whose face has been smashed in by a bouncer, he realizes that her features are similar enough to Heather's so that he can transform her in face and personality into his daughter with the aim of splitting Heather's $5 million inheritance down the middle. Although Jane Doe is able to imitate Heather's cultured voice and memorize the names and faces of her family and friends, her inability to emulate Heather's musical abilities as a piano prodigy are not so easily explained way to alcoholic Uncle Bradley (Arlen Dean Snyder, HEARTBREAK RIDGE) who is always looking to family members for donations to fund his unsuccessful local government runs, and whiz kid psychiatrist Dr. Dean (David Scarroll) is solicitous in finding out what shock she suffered to cause her year-long absence. Jane wants more than money from Phillip, and the two engage in a pseudo-incestuous relationship until the real Heather shows up and turns the relationship into a triangle with both vying for Phillip's love, with Heather even suggesting that they switch identities to see how long it will take him to distinguish one from the other. When the question of Heather's grandfather's will comes up, Jane suggests to Phillip that they can either pay her off or kill her. When Phillip decides to get rid of one of them, which will it be, and will she actually be the intended victim?

Despite the veiled promise of gore offered up by the poster art of grid lines superimposed over the face of the heroine – not to mention the cinematic history of plastic surgery going back to EYES WITHOUT A FACE – SCALPEL (originally titled FALSE FACE) is actually a stab at Hitchcock (particularly VERTIGO) in a Southern Gothic setting of Antebellum mansions, Dixieland jazz-scored funerals, and Southern accents galore. Lansing and Chapman do have chemistry, but much of the film lacks the obsessiveness of the film's model to be anything more than a potboiler until the last fifteen minutes or so. The theme of incest, real or by proxy, is ultimately no more effectively utilized here than in Brian De Palma's similar stab at imitating VERTIGO in OBSESSION. The score of Robert Cobert (DARK SHADOWS) recalls Bernard Herrmann's score for VERTIGO at its most lyrical and his own BURNT OFFERINGS during some suspense sequences before going funky for the end credits. Cinematographer Edward Lachman's next assignments would be as camera assistant on Werner Herzog's STROSZEK and THE AMERICAN FRIEND followed by several documentaries throughout the eighties followed by more mainstream assignments, including Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy, and garnering Oscar nominations for FAR FROM HEAVEN and CAROL.

The film played briefly as FALSE FACE through United International Pictures before going out as SCALPEL from Avco Embassy, followed by a videocassette release by Embassy sub-label Charter Entertainment. The film's belated digital release comes courtesy of Arrow Video's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encodes of a 2K scan of the film's surviving, faded CRI (color reversal intermediate). Arrow performed their own grading of the film before the involvement of cinematographer Lachman who employed coral and straw filters to bring out the yellows and greens for the film's Southern Gothic feel. While the filtration does breathe life into the daylight exteriors, it is rather overbearing throughout the rest of the film – at least as performed digitally here – so the inclusion of the more conventional-looking Arrow grading is a nice addition. The viewer is able to toggle back and forth between the two grades utilizing either the pop-up menu or the angle button on the player remote. Both versions feature the same LPCM 1.0 mono track which conveys the dialogue and scoring without any distracting hiss or damage. Optional English SDH subtitles are included but will have to be switched back on when switching between grades.

Both encodes are also accompanied by an audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith who admits up front that Lansing is one of his favorite actors and provides plenty of biographical information and an assessment of the jobbing actor's filmography and television work. Of the film, he describes the real news story that inspired the script, retooling it to take advantage of a deal with the Georgia Film Commission, director John Grissmer and associate producer wife Patricia Vollmar's work on the New York stage, and the New York stage actors filling out the production along with the local actors, Chapman's soap opera following, and how the lead was first offered to Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS), John Forsythe (THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY), and Hal Holbrook – who may have turned the film down to make RITUALS – before Lansing (the role of his colleague was offered to future Saturday Night Live alum Jane Curtain before going to BIG LOVE's Sandy Martin).

"The Cutting Edge" (13:52) is an interview with director Grissmer who briefly discusses his earlier credit as screenwriter of THE BRIDE/THE HOUSE THAT CRIED MURDER – out on Blu-ray from Code Red as LAST HOUSE ON MASSACRE STREET – which was directed by Jean-Marie Pélissié, a protégé of Otto Preminger who visited the set, as well as his other director credit BLOOD RAGE which was a work for hire put together by producer/co-star Marianne Kanter. He discusses the script by trailer cutter Joseph Weintraub (FAMILY HONOR), the chemistry between Chapman and Lansing, as well as the contributions of Lachman and Cobert. "Dead Ringer" (17:20) is an interview with actress Chapman who recalls having to audition multiple times for both characters, having to act through the painful primitive make-up appliances, how Grissmer allowed her and Lansing to explore their characters, and her ongoing friendship with Lachman. In "Southern Gothic" (15:25), cinematographer Lachman recalls the film as his first opportunity to shoot 35mm film – having shot 8mm student films and did reshoots on THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH in 16mm – his dissatisfaction with the lighting more than the camera movement, his use of filters, and contacting Arrow to get involved in the grading as soon as he learned from Grissmer that the company was doing a Blu-ray of the film. He discusses the changes he made to make the transfer of the faded CRI look as he intended but also welcomes the inclusion of the Arrow grading. The disc also includes an image gallery (3:31) and the film's trailer (2:42). Not provide for review were the reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil , and the liner notes booklet with new writing on the film by Bill Ackerman included only with the first pressing. (Eric Cotenas)