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.