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Scalps (1983)

Director: Fred Olen Ray
Starring: Jo Ann Robinson, Richard Hench, Roger Maycock, Frank McDonald,
Rated R 82 min.

A goofy and unethical archaeology professor sends his students deep into the California desert to explore an Indian burial ground. Along the way, they encounter a gas station Indian who warns them that the land is protected by a terrible curse, and the spirits won't be pleased about a bunch of kids screwing around out there. They don't listen, of course. The students begin to regret this decision when a very unhappy demon named Black Claw appears to exact a bloody revenge.

With bad acting and terrible dialogue wrapped around a dumb story, SCALPS isn't a "good" movie in the traditional sense. It's even more damaged by some mind-boggling editing decisions (flash forward scenes of each character's death are shown early in the movie) made, according to Fred Olen Ray, by an unscrupulous distributor. This act removed all of the tension from a movie that didn't have much to begin with. This same distributor also had the brilliant idea to incorporate test shots of a very silly looking lion-man character who wears a mask that's only point of articulation is an Elvis-style lip sneer. There's also a very awkward, out-of place cameo by Forrest J. Ackerman in which he shamelessly plugs his book "Mr. Monster's Movie Gold."

The lion man, SCALPS

Forrest J. Ackerman runs into the professor (Kirk Alyn)
That said, SCALPS does have that odd, somewhat endearing quality you'll find from these early slashers. The desert landscapes and the grainy 16mm photography give the movie an occasional atmosphere of doom and foreboding, which quickly dissipates the moment a character speaks. The greatest thing about SCALPS, however, are the effects from Bart Mixon, John McCallum, and Chris Biggs. None of them are very convincing (with the exception of a very well-done scalping), but they are all gory and fun.

Made for peanuts over the course of several long weekends, SCALPS was a movie that seemed to be doomed from the start. As Ray (and longtime collaborator T.L. Lankford) relate in the commentary, this movie required a massive amount of work and sacrifice to make, yet had almost no payoff whatsoever. The movie was essentially stolen from them almost immediately, and while the various distributors made a killing off the movie, Ray and Langford never saw a dime of it. This version of SCALPS, Ray says, is the most complete version ever seen, yet it is still not the movie he intended to make. Ray and Lankford are open and honest about the end result, but you can hear that a twinge of heartache still exists over thirty years later. They maintain a sense of humor, though, and provide a very insightful and entertaining commentary about their not-so-good slasher.

While not a good movie, SCALPS is a ragged and gory little flick that provides some thrills and some unintentional laughs. The real reason to check this disc out is the commentary track, which should be of particular interest to aspiring filmmakers.

"Black Claw" from SCALPS

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