Rough, Ready, Surreal & Nasty: Fred Olen Ray’s Scalps (1983)

Matty extols the virtues of Fred Olen Ray’s most atypical movie.

It’d be lazy and ignorant to bemoan the picture quality of SCALPS’ Blu-rays or Amazon Prime presentation. Mirroring the MacGuffin at the heart of Fred Olen Ray’s charismatic slasher, the 2K scan available on 88 Films’ now out of print British disc, its US counterpart via Ray’s own Retromedia, and on the streaming platform is a remarkable feat of excavation. As Ray explains in his wonderfully candid commentary (available on both discs, my fellow physical media-loving hawks), Scalps’ crackpot censorship history has resulted in a restoration as piecemeal as the film’s shot-on-weekends creation. As it stands, what we’ve got is Scalps’ definitive version, the bulk taken from a maddeningly incomplete 35mm blow-up negative (it was shot on 16mm) with gore scenes – including the titular money shot – spliced in from various tape sources. Yes, it’s a pig of a transfer by conventional quality standards (though Ray’s then-haphazard filmmaking skills, soft shots and all, don’t help), but the fact we have at least something available is an achingly bittersweet experience for those of us well-versed in Ray lore. In a nutshell, Scalps’ original elements are long believed lost at the hands of its conniving US distributor, 21st Century, and the director’s decade plus of searching has so far led nowhere.

Thing is, the scratchy, washed out, and fuzzy appearance of Scalps on disc and online lends itself to the film’s grim fabric and nightmare-soaked ambience. Indeed, with his name generally more synonymous with jocular kitsch like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Evil Toons, and, now, made-for-TV Christmas movies, Ray’s mean-spirited body counter is something of an anomaly. Abrasive and often surreal, Scalps’ hypnotic nastiness is set with a savage opening sequence: a crude but alarming decapitation by the film’s gurning, craggy-faced antagonist (an evil Native American spirit called ‘Black Claw’) that segues into an evocative collection of desert-bound images, culminating with an archaeologist cutting his own throat at a dig.

While a mite sloppy tech-wise, with poor sound and lame day-for-night photography veering close to headache-inducing levels of ineptitude, atmospherically Ray demonstrates a command of mood and tone. At times, Scalps is Wes Craven-esque; Ray evokes the open air claustrophobia of the maestro’s Hills Have Eyes (1977) and his intrusive, docu-style camerawork calls to mind the immediate, unflinching brutality of The Last House on the Left (1972). It’s a comparison furthered by Scalps’ excellent, pacey third act. Here, the film’s supernatural underpinnings give way to something more relatable; they’re a cipher for Ray’s Craven-tinged exploration of man’s capacity for violence against one another.

Of course, it should be noted that interference from Scalps’ nefarious money men are as much to credit as Ray for the film’s skin-crawling success. There’s a powerful, alchemic reaction to their accidental union: reworking Scalps’ structure before its theatrical run, 21st Century’s editorial noodling only enhances the story’s elliptic nature and Ray’s sense of eerie sparseness.

USA ● 1983 ● Horror ● 82mins

Jo-Ann Robinson, Richard Hench Dir. Fred Olen Ray Wri. Fred Olen Ray, story by T.L. Lankford, John Ray, Fred Olen Ray

Scalps (1983) - Poster


 

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