Something strange has happened! I have discovered that I have miraculously developed an appreciation for a film I previously balked at- FRED OLAN RAY’s ever-shoddy SCALPS (1983)! Who would have thunk? As a burgeoning horror freak in the early eighties, I first developed anticipation for this undercooked oddity via FANGORIA magazine. I can still remember the small image from the film on its cover that suggested impressive make up effects with the presentation of a snarling, demonic face (plus the title “SCALPS” was so threatening, how could I resist?) It was many years before I’d finally get my hands on the elusive film thanks to the infamous big box double-feature VHS tape that paired it up with one of my favorites, THE SLAYER. Unfortunately my first viewing only brought quick and staggering disappointment. It was all so amateurish and cheap and I couldn’t get beyond the vast difference between the devastating movie I had semi-conjured in my head and the goofy shoestring letdown that existed in reality. My skyscraper high anticipation provided a lethal plummet and the fact that SCALPS followed the equally low budget yet superbly crafted THE SLAYER didn’t help its cause.
Luckily fate wasn’t going to let me get away that easy. I recently stumbled into a DVD of SCALPS in a loose bin of unloved castaways at a killer garage sale (Thanks, South Street Cinema!) and I couldn’t resist it for two mere smackers. I was sure the movie would still underwhelm but I crushed on the vibrant and tacky cover art and I figured a person could never have too many movies from the early eighties in their collection. It had to be good for at least an inebriated mock-watch at least!? But then the unlikely occurred. I watched SCALPS super late at night while my brain was susceptible to abject weirdness and it put a peculiar spell on me. It’s still atrociously constructed and it remains an ineptly written ramshackle quilt of grainy, often unfocused images burdened by amateurish performances and cluttered audio… yet, by golly, it’s genuinely creepy at times and the random, minimalistic slithering synth score is borderline intoxicating. I guess I’ve been thirsting for a vaguely coherent, low-tech sleaze fest and didn’t even know it! When will I learn that untamed trashy cinema reaches me in places that slick modern fare never can?
The plot is as simple and hoary as it gets: three couples travel to the middle of nowhere, ignore multiple warnings and thoughtlessly debase an Indian burial ground- ghostly retribution and well earned tragedy follows. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t rooting for the ancient entities to exact their revenge but I did feel a tinge of pity for most likely survivor D. J. (JO –ANN ROBINSON) who was at least mindful enough to predict the group’s inevitable doom (I guess I’ve been partial to stories concerning stumbled upon curses ever since THE BRADY BUNCH encountered that kooky Tiki idol in Hawaii). There’s a slippery semi-racist slope that SCALPS somewhat skirts by pointedly clarifying that Native Americans adapted the practice of scalping from trespassing white men committed to their people’s genocide. It’s not much but I’ll take what I can get. I should also warn there’s an uncomfortable rape scene that seems almost tacked on from another movie filmed on a somehow cheaper stock. I’d much prefer the scene was omitted entirely as it feels out of place, as if it’s only there to fill out an exploitation quota.
But really it’s all about the uncanny atmosphere, when night falls on the foolish campers, the outside world turns DOGVILLE-black and you only have the toy-like, almost cardboard cutout props of a tent and a car to keep you grounded on Earth. The patchwork quality of the film (which so irked me on first viewing) actually has a semi- dramatic, inadvertently artsy effect and the raw, out of focus inserts add to the general miasma. SCALPS even closes with a pretty potent “lost-soul” stinger in the tradition of TRILOGY OF TERROR’s epic final frame. And God help me, I take great comfort in the fact that no Blu-ray scrub job could ever alter this film’s filthy, gritty texture. Even after being cleaned up for DVD it still looks like it’s been tied to the back of a truck and dragged around town for hours. All that said, it’s not hard to understand why this flick hasn’t been better received over the years. I imagine the perplexing and periodical appearance of a borderline ridiculous lion-headed spirit with a mechanical BILLY IDOL sneer is an early deal breaker for many a viewer (even though it’s kind of adorable).
Come to think of it, my change of heart here reminds me a lot of my reconsideration of the crappy but strangely mesmerizing BLOOD SHACK. I certainly prefer movies that stimulate me due to the impressiveness of their craft but I guess there’s something to be said for oddities that accidently work as simply a rough around the edges mood-piece. The homemade, tacked together with Band-Aids and bubble gum, quality of SCALPS is actually its strongest asset. It’s a lacking film in every possible technical aspect but its brutishness has bite and I think if you catch it (or it catches you) at the right moment, it’s at least strangely eerie. I’d never guess that a film that starts with a wacky FORREST J. ACKERMAN cameo and a Saturday Morning television vibe could end on such a dire, futile note.
So I hope ramshackle, snaggle-toothed, terrible yet inimitable SCALPS will accept my apology for not looking past surface cosmetics on my inaugural viewing. It certainly does pale in comparison to much of its contemporaries but for all its faults it’s a least committed to riling the viewer rather than stroking their fur and its synth meets rattling bones score is genuinely boast-worthy. We’ll never be besties by any stretch but I’m glad I watched it again and who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy it even more in a couple years when the eighties are even smaller in my rearview mirror.
I’ve got a serious penchant for DVD movie compilations. I try to collect as many as possible because they take up so little room and tend to introduce me to titles I might not purchase on their own. Plus, I’m such an old school VHS –head that the idea of getting ten or so titles in one swoop still feels like a bonanza to me. Thankfully I can always count on MILL CREEK ENTERTAINMENT to periodically supply me with such a fix. Their latest all- horror offering is entitled SHADOW STALKERS and it could be my favorite pack that they have released thus far. Let’s take a look at what goodies are lurking within!
OUT OF THE DARK (1988)
I had to get my hands on this collection for this movie alone. How has this campy, kooky cult-oddity evaded me all of these years? Somehow not one of the countless video stores I loitered in back in the day happened to carry it. Well, its days of avoiding me are now finally over. OUT OF THE DARK is about a very vocal murderer in a creepy clown mask who terrorizes the female employees of an L.A. phone sex line. Humor, sleaze and suspense collide as two cops try to crack the killer’s identity before he brutally claims his next victim. This is basically a can’t lose affair because the film’s most outlandish set pieces and cringe-worthy lines of dialogue only make it that much more entertaining. More importantly it has a to-die-for cast that includes: KAREN BLACK (TRILOGY OF TERROR) , GEOFFREY LEWIS (SALEM’S LOT), TRACEY WALTER (REPO MAN), BUD CORT (HAROLD AND MAUDE), PAUL BARTEL (EATING RAOL), TAB HUNTER (POLYESTER), LAINE KAZAN (LUST IN THE DUST) and the incomparable DIVINE as an overbearing, mustached cop in his very last film role. Overall it’s a howling good time and a deep dive into neon-soaked, vibrant eighties-flavored excess.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981)
I wrote about my unabashed love for this sterling early eighties slasher classic back HERE (as well as in the book BUTCHER KNIVES AND BODY COUNTS). It’s a favorite of mine that I return to on a nearly yearly basis. This flick is total comfort horror for me and always will be. If you happened to purchase the initial DVD release you may have been disappointed to find that it utilized a generic, temporary score rather than the underrated and poetic theatrical score by BO HOWARD (LOVE STREAMS) and LANCE RUBIN (MOTEL HELL). If so, this collection is an affordable way to remedy that situation. Even though I’ll always love my VHS tape, this is a film that really needs to be seen widescreen due to the way it plays with background and foreground imagery. If you want to go one even better, MILL CREEK has also released HBTM on Blu-ray in a nifty retro faux-aged VHS box art cover. I highly recommend that for the ultimate (as of now) presentation of the movie. Hey, you can’t have too many copies of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!
THE EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978)
How incredible is it that this glamo-camp thriller starring the ferocious FAYE DUNAWAY was based on a screenplay by horror maestro JOHN CARPENTER? And how many movies involving a famous fashion photographer with the psychic power to foresee Giallo-esque murders can boast a haunting theme song from one BABS STREISAND? Not many, I’m guessing. This is rather an avalanche of awesome because besides DUNAWAY, you also get a young TOMMY LEE WALLACE (yes, he was young once) and a fantastically creepy performance from future CHUCKY inhabitant BRAD DOURIFF. If that weren’t enough, the late great RAUL JULIA is on board as well and directing honors go to IRVIN KERSHNER (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK). They really don’t make them like this anymore and that’s a shame. If you don’t already own a copy I can’t recommend this twisty, moody, nutso movie enough.
AND THE REST…
The three titles above are indisputably the most valuable players rocking this set. All three are presented in widescreen and look slick, sharp and generally impressive. The seven remaining flicks are more of a gritty public domain affair of variant quality. I consider this group the freeby gravy; maybe not ideal but good to have on hand for a rainy day.
You get DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE! (1980) a sleazy, somewhat disturbing tale of a roving psychopath that works as an interesting time capsule of early eighties Los Angeles, NIGHTMARE IN WAX (1969) a semi-bland revenge/torture flick with a hammy performance by CAMERON MITCHELL, BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965) which features MARISKA HARGITAY’s bodybuilder father MICKEY in red tights abusing all those who trespass in his castle, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1973) the strangely lyrical holiday horror flick starring the hypnotic MARY WORONOV, FUNERAL HOME (1980) WILLIAM FRUET’s underrated Canadian slasher starring scream queen LESLEH DONALDSON, DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984) a lacking London set X-mas shocker in which a maniac’s preferred victims are all dressed as Santa and finally, DRIVE IN MASSACRE (1979) which may be slower than a drugged turtle but features a hard to resist setting for film lovers.
All in all it’s roughly 15 hours of entertainment and my only gripe would be that FUNERAL HOME’s presentation leaves a bit to be desired and is actually a downgrade from my trusty VHS tape. No worries though-OUT OF THE DARK, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and EYES OF LAURA MARS more than make up for that slight. My other DVD sets will be more than happy to welcome SHADOW STALKERS to my growing collection.
Ok. This would have been in late August/early September of 1985. I was living in Bradenton, FL, and WTOG would show movies on Saturday afternoons featuring Dr. Paul Bearer, Creature Feature. It was around Labor Day weekend because we were home from school due to Hurricane Elena.
The movie was something about a girl with long dark hair, worshiping some sort of idol, she gets stabbed in the lower back as some sort of sacrifice while naked. There might have been some sort of bunker/temple involved, I just remember the idol set in an alcove with a light shining down on it and the woman standing in front of it.
This is incredibly vague, hope y’all can help!