31 Days of Gore: Scalps (1983)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

My DVD copy of Scalps opens with an apology. The filmmakers regret to inform us that this is, for all intents and purposes, a lost film. According to the director’s commentary they’ll never be able to make the definitive cut because the footage simply doesn’t exist. To recreate the original theatrical release, which was butchered by the greedy distributor to begin with, they had to pull from a variety of sources. Most of the movie is pieced together from excessively blown-up and washed-out film. At other times, they had to pull snippets from VHS tapes, including all the death scenes, because their main sources (a German print and a Canadian print) had censored all that stuff.

That’s okay. Shit, I was under no pretense this was a Selznik production. Part of the reason I love movies like this is because it’s a wonder they were made at all.

I’m inclined to like any movie in which an average, everyday person wrote a screenplay, found a camera, and convinced a handful of reluctant friends and family members to act in their little movie. There’s just something fascinating about watching people who’ve never been in a movie before—who’ll likely never be in a movie again—trying to act. To this day, Clerks is still among my favorite movies of all time because it’s made by a guy who, at the time, had no idea how to make a “real” movie. (Some would say he still has no idea.)

The thing about Scalps is it’s not exactly one of those kinds of movies. The filmmakers had made movies before. They’ve made movies since. The director states in the commentary it was great for raising money for future projects, so long as the investors only saw the ad in the newspaper’s showtimes section, not the actual movie itself. There’s even a cameo involving Forrest J. Ackerman, the guy who’s often credited for coining the regrettable term “sci-fi” and who turned his home into an awesome museum for all things science fiction and horror. Sure, the cameo’s terrible, but amateurs usually don’t get names like that in their movies.

Still, I never felt old until I watched Scalps, a movie which was released the year I was born, but somehow looks fucking ancient. After watching it, I found gray hairs I’ve never noticed before, a glass of Polident by my adjustable bed, and I developed a fondness for penny slots and Fox News. If you had told me this movie was made around the same time as Blood Feast, I might have believed you if not for the telltale style of clothes worn by the main characters.

I’ve heard about the legendary badness of Scalps and expected to enjoy it in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way, but even those guys wouldn’t touch it because there just isn’t enough dialogue to rip on and there’s only so many times you can make fun of the awkward pauses and clumsy transitions between scenes. Too much of this film is filler. Long sections of it are like watching a stranger’s vacation footage on Super 8. At one point, during an extended scene of a car driving down a desert road, my girlfriend got up to let the dog out. When she got back, they were still showing the same scenery. At which point she decided to go to bed.

There’s one Native American in the entire movie and, according to the director’s commentary, he was a Scientologist. This actor, who could be a stand-in for Keith Richards, gets perhaps two minutes of screen time, which is hilariously misguided (and probably offensive) when your movie’s moral is “white people shouldn’t steal Indian artifacts.” Taking an obvious inspiration from Evil Dead, the spirit of a “renegade Indian” who practiced black magic possesses one of six whiny white people who are on an archaeological vacation in the desert. The evil spirit then proceeds to pick off the rest of the campers one by one. One of the actresses, while running, takes care to adjust her shirt for the camera even though her character’s back is full of arrows.

The filmmakers claim the movie they shot is not the movie you see. While the movie was intended to be a slow burn until the climactic carnage, the distributor edited the movie to maximize the shocks per reel, which was done at the sacrifice of continuity and coherence. There’s a human-lion hybrid who watches the campers from afar, but has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and the possessed white man somehow watches himself arrive before he’s ever actually possessed. At various points throughout the movie, you even see the main characters’ dead bodies before they die because fuck it, that’s why.

Seriously… people end up dead before they’re killed. I shit you not.

I should probably point out that the gore effects are surprisingly… well, I was going to say good, but I’ll just say “not bad.” The scalping looked realistic enough for this kind of budget and a decapitation was satisfyingly bloody, even though the head came off before the blade actually struck the neck. I’ll take what I can get.

I have no idea how Scalps would have played to an audience, but I’m sure there was no shortage of snickering. The best part about the DVD is the candid nature of the commentary. Right off the bat, the director admits he hasn’t seen this movie in a long time because it’s just not something you show off proudly. Aspiring filmmakers will probably love listening to this director talk about his troubles. It really sounds like there was a better movie than what we got and he’s not just shifting the blame.

Sometimes you’ve just got to make something to get somewhere in the film business. Unfortunately, sometimes that something turns out to be Scalps.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

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