""Relentlessly morbid" is the best way to describe this gruesome tale of retribution from beyond the grave. Deemed to be too intense for civilized audiences, this film has either been censored or outright banned in 99% of the world.
The screen is drenched in despair by the constant, nagging anxiety of isolation as the encroaching elements envelope the characters in a cloud of ever impending horror and doom.
Rarely since THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE has a film evoked such deep emotions in the viewer - an overwhelming sensation of dread that is not easily shaken off.
A product of the early 1980's Horror/Slasher Movie craze SCALPS succeeds in wild fashion as a gritty, in-your-face no-budget gore fest that transcends the genre to become an unnerving exercise in terror."
By 1983, pretty much every scenario and calendar date had been snapped and used (and in turn, recycled) by slasher movie makers. So, it must have seemed like a great idea to take that hoary old ghost house movie cliché (the disturbed Indian burial ground) and graft it onto stalk ‘n’ slash theatrics.
SCALPS starts as it means to go on, with what looks like a demon doing aerobics and a cheap looking, but undeniably messy, decapitation. Coming thick and fast on that attention seeking opening gambit, the film inter-cuts between an old man driving through the desert and a lion-headed monster doing a Billy Idol impression (what was it with that curled lip?). Now, does this sound like some demented cheese dream? Certainly, the opening five minutes start to look like a slasher movie directed by Kenneth Anger. Next the old man sees the face of a haggard old crone in a soup dish (as you do), and is compelled to cut his own throat (thankfully the film isn’t quite bad enough for the audience to feel compelled to follow his example).
Before we start to wonder exactly what we're watching, Fred Olen Ray starts to pour on the cheese (and never really stops). In a scenery chewing turn, Professor Machen (Kirk Alyn) is an archaeology professor (“Archaeology – unearthing things, you know!”). He’s gathered together the least likely looking group of academic students in slasher movie history to spend a weekend out in the desert. However, he has to promise his grumpy superior (played by scream queen of yore, Carroll Borland) that he’s not really desecrating a burial ground – “As long as its not digging up dead Indians”, she intones through a mouthful of dead wasps. He promises he wouldn’t be that naughty, but in a move designed to throw a spanner in the works she drops a bombshell that he must stay behind after all to do an inventory (it's either that or take long overdue acting lessons). So, with a tilt of his pith helmet, he cheerfully waves off his young charges to their certain doom.
And off they go, in perhaps one of the most tedious journeys in the annals of slasher movie history (I swear they drive past the same bush four times). The tedium is almost lifted by such showstoppers as the car overheating and them stopping at a remote gas station, where an elderly Indian does a passable Crazy Ralph impression and warns them they are doomed if they continue on their mission to dig up his ancestors. Needless to say they ignore his sensible advice, all bar the sensitive hippy type, DJ (Jo-Ann Robinson), who starts getting the serious heebie-jeebies.
But, poor viewer, the journey is not over and our merry gang prolong it even longer by moaning and groaning to the dig site on foot. They finally get there, set up camp and start to mess about with (and invariably desecrate) Indian remains. It isn’t long before disaster strikes – “Now look, I broke a nail!” bemoans one of the girls with all the gravitas befitting a Shakespearean tragedy.
However, come nightfall and things really start to go pear-shaped. The group experience disturbing visions, campfires with no heat, drums from hell rising from the ground, and DJ going boss-eyed and whimpering, “This ground is alive with … evil!” (prompting a less than charitable “She’s nuts!” from Louise (Carol Sue Flockhart)). Needless to say, come morning the group run screaming into the hills with their hands in the air … except they don’t. No, nothing comes between this lot and some sandy old relics. On goes the dig, and, come the next night, off comes their scalps! ... Well, actually the film should really have been called SCALP, as only one of the am-dram rejects looses their 'clowning glory'.
It takes a while, but once the gloves are off SCALPS does actually slip rather nicely into slasher movie territory, as the group fall one-by-one to possession and murder – especially with some surprisingly effective slo-mo chases shot in day-for-night (so beloved of cheap 70s and 80s movies). Admittedly, the possessed killer looks like the half-man half-ape in the seriously demented Mexican, wrestling horror flick, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969), but, naturally, that just adds to its cheesy low budget charm. And the low budget does shine through on occasion, with some of the film obviously not shot with sound – and some of it with the soundtrack mixed far too high.
As the commentary discusses (and the front of the DVD wears as a badge of pride), SCALPS is one of the most censored movies in history. Of course, like many movies that claim infamy the reality isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be – especially when looking back over 20 years hence. Having said that, despite the meagre budget, SCALPS is blessed with a handful of pretty impressive gore effects. The film’s one scalping is yucky enough (and could rival the more expensive effects in MANIAC (1980)) – and the accompanying slit throat is also most impressive. I doubt it’d come as any real surprise to see that the film takes its inspiration from another Tom Savini gore extravaganza, FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), especially the climactic decapitation (complete with hands waving in the air (like they just don’t care) as arterial spray fills the screen).
SCALPS may not be an altogether hair raising viewing experience, but if you can last the distance - and not fall into a coma before the cast reach the burial ground - there's enough cheesy bon bons to make this worth hunting down. However, the (touted in the final credits) sequel never appeared - or did it ...
BODYCOUNT 7 female:2 / male:51) Male cuts his own throat