Scalps (1983)

     Director: Fred Olen Ray       Hoff! Hoff!

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 film scary.

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

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