Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Scalps (1983)

Every so often, you will come across a horror film that instantly catches your eye. Maybe because of the way its presented, maybe because of the actors or actresses in it, maybe because the title was something a bit out of the ordinary. And sometimes, one will catch your attention just because the subject matter is far from the "cookie cutter" formula of most horror films - which isn't always a bad thing, but sometimes isn't a good thing, either.

On the left you will see a piece of horror history for me. Just one look at this big box and I'm instantly inside the Valley Mart grocery store in Weslaco, Texas circa 1987. I'm about thirteen or fourteen years old and been given permission to browse the film titles in the video rental spot located in the northern corner of the store as mum and dad did the shopping. Ah, those days of staring at those bright colored big boxes as they each begged me to pick the up and hold them for just a little while. Each one in their own distinct voices calling out to me just yearning to be looked at, read and ultimately, taken home. Of course, I was too young for that and my parents would have never allowed it in the first place anyway. Valley Mart holds a special place in my heart as one of the first places where I was exposed to the many classics I now hold dear to me. It was something forbidden, something I longed to explore even further, and I made myself a promise that when I got older, I'd go back and rent each film at least once. But that was never to happen as the video section of the store was soon phased out at the start of the 90's. Long live its memory.

The first time I picked up Continental's big box boasting the double-bill of this film with The Slayer, I stared at it for a while and read the synopsis on the back. I loved the idea of two films on one VHS - which was something of a rarity then (if you notice, the photo to the left indicates a DVD release which I have yet to find). Every time I was in the store, I made a point of picking this one up just to stare at it longingly. To this day, I've never seen this Continental double-bill cassette again. When I started my collecting hobby back in late 2002, I had forgotten this film existed therefore never searched for it, until I laid eyes on the 20th anniversary edition DVD released by RetroMedia about a year ago. I immediately began doing my research on this one, reading up as much as I could and reading other's reviews and thoughts about the film. Some said it was great, some said it fell flat on its face. What intrigued me most was a blurb across the back of the DVD stating "the most censored film of all time" - I had to pick it up and judge for myself. I first looked up the theatrical trailer on youtube and watched it only to have my curiosity mount. Sure, it looked really low budget, but that didn't meant I couldn't give it a fair chance.

The first thing to grab my attention was the disclaimer notice at the beginning of the film. Actually, I take that back. The psychedelic title card reading "Feature Presentation" that looked an awful lot like the opening title card used by Grindhouse Releasing caught my eye first. Then the notice stating the film was coming from different prints was next. This wasn't the first 80's horror film whose DVD treatment from several masters promised the most "complete version". According to IMDb, this DVD was made with a heavily cut German print, a Canadian print and the U.S. VHS edition - and believe me, it shows. In many places in the film the quality, in both video and audio. goes in and out from clear to dark to grainy and back again. But that's not the worst thing about the film.

From the moment the film commences, it screams - no, it howls - low budget. And it howls with such a furor that all of the dogs that inhabit the block I live in are still following suit. A group of kids takes a trip out into the deserts of California to do an "archaeological dig" to uncover secrets of a lost Native American tribe. The characters are all obviously naive about this sort of thing even though they act like they know what they're doing. Among those characters are Randy and Ben (Richard Hench and Frank McDonald, respectively) - the token "eye candy" of the film leading the expedition followed by the always-present nerd Kershaw (Roger Maycock). They lead a group of three ladies (two of whose performances are so vapid I won't even credit them with their real names) out into the California wilderness to dig up artifacts on an Indian burial ground. Of the three ladies, the only one that stands out is poor, bumbling blonde D.J. (Jo-Ann Robinson), who spends 2/3 of the film trying to warn the group about the possible grave dangers of disturbing the dead. But not before being personally warned by local Indian man Billy Ironwing (George Randall) channeling Crazy Ralph in the Friday the 13th series, except not as overbearing and spooky. She seems to have a premonition about what might happen on the dig, but does she know something that she's keeping from the others? And why is she so insistent about everything?

The storyline itself leaves much to be desired. The exteriors switch from night to day then back again, all within the same scene. The use of the three different prints leaves gaps and jumps in the film's continuity making it all the more confusing. The lighting is poor, especially in some of the darker areas. The acting is just plain horrible - and I'm being gracious. I was really expecting a film with more of a punch, especially with the description that I'd read on the back of the DVD, but the entire thing quickly fizzles and stays that way. I was really hoping a film that explored the idea of tampering with an Indian burial ground and its ghosts haunting the living to carry itself with ease, but it does just the opposite. There are probably less than a handful of horror films with this sort of plot line and this one should have stood out. The gore scenes didn't deliver enough to the point of doing anything but compare themselves at times to scenes in Maniac. The film ends just as I'd predicted: that D.J. was aware of what was going on the entire time and that she would be the only one to survive, carrying the ghost of "Black Claw", the film's ominous villain, within her. The film in its final moment even gives us something I would have never expected: a title card promising a sequel? Oh, pretension, where art thou? I honestly thought the producers were kidding, but no, they were going to give us a dose of Scalps II: The Return of D.J.. Thankfully, the sequel was never made and all of us can now rest knowing that the final shot of D.J. surrounded by all the dead bodies - ala Mrs. Voorhees in Friday The 13th - Part 2 - was just that: the final shot.

If you're really into horror history and/or honestly curious about this film, find a rental copy. Even the small bit of money I paid to get this into my collection was a bit much for such a painful film to have to sit through. The film is cheesy, and not in the good way. It's banal and completely oblivious of itself and the potential it had to be a well-made shocker.

Here is the trailer. Listen as the announcer claims this to be "a film that you might not be strong enough to survive until the end" and "No one under 17 will be admitted without parent"...They were kidding, right?

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