SCALPS (1983)
Director: Fred Olen Ray

On the same day as the release of Fred Olen Ray's first wide release feature film, THE ALIEN DEAD, fans of the infamous schlockmeister are also treated to the long-awaited DVD edition of SCALPS. Paired with the equally gory THE SLAYER on video in the 1980s, it has been tough to see ever since; juicy highlights also appeared on Continental's TERROR ON TAPE compilation. Now, after a long wait and culled from different prints of varying quality, SCALPS has been unleashed to amuse and appall those adventurous enough to dive into it.

Six college students of archaeology (their professor is Kirk Alyn, of the SUPERMAN serials) embark on a dig in the California desert, despite warnings from both the head of the science department (Carroll Borland, of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, in a very good cameo) and a smalltown drunk Indian, who regals them with the tale of how a tribe was wiped out by white settlers and whoever trespasses on the land will die a horrible death. The group treks further into the desert on their quest until they discover the supernatural mumbo-jumbo is a reality when one of their posse is possessed by an evil wrinkled spirit called Black Claw and goes on a slashing spree.

Opening with an incredibly graphic decapitation (replayed later) and a crusty old treasure hunter slitting his own throat when his hand is possessed by an evil desert spirit (!), SCALPS wastes no time in cutting to the chase: this is gonna be a grisly good time for those in the right mood. It takes a while to get to the red stuff, but the getting's good when it arrives. A blood-soaked throat-slitting and scalping, an off-the-wall transformation from man to demon, the back of a guy's head is whisked off, one girl is bombarded with arrows in a ridiculously long chase scene, and an arrow is pierced through an eye. But for those who enjoy a good cheap horror film, blood or no blood, there's still plenty to enjoy here: Forrest J. Ackerman as a professor carrying a monster magazine, a half-scary, half-comic lion's-head demon with a mechanical curling lip, pools of blood materializing out of thin air, a goofy slow-motion chase scene, campy dialogue, a creepy musical score, and really great atmospheric location photography recalling Wes Craven's THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Cult film aficionados will recognize the plot is reminiscent of Bill Grefe's DEATH CURSE OF TARTU, right down to the students hearing otherworldly drums. As mentioned before, SCALPS does tend to take a while for anything important to happen; by the time the body count begins, you'll either despise or be bored stiff by the college kids. But it's an entertaining enough slice of 80s horror for those seeking a painless 80 minutes of gore, bad hair, and desert madness. Plus the end credits promise a sequel that never materialized (SCALPS II: THE RETURN OF D.J.)!

Presented in widescreen 1.85:1, SCALPS doesn't look that hot. The disclaimer before the film apologizes for the inferior quality of the video and audio, which were transferred from several different elements. True to the warning, the image shifts from bright and clear to dark and muddy to blurry and bleeding to grainy and fuzzy. The mono audio gets the dialogue across well, even though some of the music is muffled at times. The fact that the film is completely uncut is enough reason for me to dismiss these qualms, and fans of the flick and Ray's oeuvre probably will, too. Films made on a shoestring rarely look crystal clear when appearing on the digital format, and this is the best SCALPS is bound to look.

A healthy dose of extras are included, kicking off with the original trailer, which strangely enough doesn't highlight many of the gore effects but does include a number of great cheesy moments. The stills gallery contains promotional stills, behind-the-scenes shots of the actors relaxing on-set, the make-up artists at work, and Ray directing his cast, and Ray's Christmas card for that year (!!), as well as the original theatrical poster. The real star of the disc is the audio commentary by director Ray and producer Lee Langford. They seem to be perplexed at why the film has developed a cult following, and have fun joking about the cheesier moments and the trials of shooting low-budget in the desert. Ray points out several scenes that should not have appeared in this final cut (many outtakes and trims are thrown in at random), and his original version no longer exists. Both men tell fascinating stories about working with the retired Carroll Borland, their original choices for the role of the professor before they signed Kirk Alyn, having their film being distributed by a major company for the first time, and how the various make-up and special effects were accomplished; the story of a former co-worker who had a sex change is a howler! This audio commentary is actually much more entertaining than the film itself, and is a good primer for low-budget filmmakers today looking for pointers on how to make a good horror film cheaply. (Casey Scott)