Director: Fred Olen
I enjoyed the hell out
of this early Fred Olen Ray effort, which may be the best horror film ever made for under
$10, 000. Several reviewers and even Ray himself (in THE SPLATTER
TIMES #6) have said the movie is no good, so I put off renting it until one day when I was
in the mood for some low-budget ineptitude. What I saw was a neat little flick that I
would've admired even without the lowered expectations. Sure, it's a bit hokey at
times--mostly during the early college sequence containing the Kirk Alyn, Forry Ackerman,
and Carol Borland cameos--but it takes a conventional situation involving a group of
archaeology students at an American Indian dig getting on the bad side of the territorial
spirits and invests it with a good amount of creative energy.
Ray gets interesting, credible performances from his
actors and tells a well-paced story that is pervaded by a sense of formidable supernatural
menace. Although there are several effective moments of severe goriness, it's not so much
a gore film as a ghost story, and a very scary ghost story at that. Manifestations of the
bad magic, including drumbeats emanating from the ground and bleeding pottery, generate
the sort of frission that only a clever ghost story well-told can provide.
Undoubtedly crucial to this effect is the energy Ray
invests on landscape and atmosphere. He understood, as did Arnold, Bradbury, and Essex
when they brought forth IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, that the desert is a scary place. Once
SCALPS gets to the desert, every frame seems to breathe dust and shimmer in the heat.
Ray's camera and editing, along with the movie's eerie music score, seem to conjure
malevolence from even the most seemingly ordinary desert highway or rock terrace. The
ultimate effect of all this is not merely atmosphere, but a sort of wide-open
claustrophobia: you can feel the evil that the desert exudes pressing in on the characters
from all sides, trapping them, confining them. It is this above all else that makes the
SCALPS is not a picture that is going to permanently
unhinge you or haunt your dreams or change your life. But it is pleasantly creepy, it is
fun, and it deserves a little more respect than it has so far received.
--guest review by david walker