John Grissmer’s sleazy 1977 thriller is ripe for rediscovery

Every dreamy thing you’ve heard about the 1970s in regards to it being a Golden Age of American cinema is 100% true, with audiences hungry for edgier offbeat movies, thus birthing a market for various madmen to make lower-tier, downmarket stuff and still have plenty of eyeballs waiting to receive their wares. And with the MPAA’s newly minted ratings system – born after the new wave of more extreme stuff like Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange dared to make their way onto mainstream screens – still in its wobble-kneed infancy, plenty of nasty little numbers squeezed through the cracks and sneaked away with mild PG (or the similar GP) ratings; this, despite the fact that many of these pictures were not geared for kids or family viewing and often were choked with sleaze, suggested smut and decidedly mature melodrama.

Among the endless spate of movies that your son Timmy could freely see on a Saturday afternoon in the cinema if he so desired,  is director John (Blood Rage) Grissmer’s tawdry and really rather mesmerizing 1977 shocker Scalpel (aka False Face). The movie was released twice in the ’70s to American hard-tops and drive-ins before slinking to VHS via a slew of distributors in the 1980s and then – like so many of these pictures did – faded into the ether. Now, with so many boutique labels dragging the celluloid swamps for “forgotten” genre product, Arrow Video have pulled Scalpel back from the abyss and given it their typical “surprise birthday party” treatment, a stunning Blu-ray rendering that features TWO (two!) color-graded prints (one in a greenish tint approved by DP Edward Lachman (The Virgin Suicides) and another in standard color by the Arrow brain-trusts themselves) and a glut of special features that put this greasy gem in proper historical context. It’s genuinely amusing for me –  and many other likely horror/cult movie admirers of my generation – to see such a grandiose, figurative red carpet rolled out for a picture as obscure as Scalpel but that’s what make this particular release so damned wonderful. Because Scalpel bloody well deserves it!

The film stars character actor Robert Lansing (memorable to me most potently for his haunting performance in the fifth season The Twilight Zone episode “The Long Morrow”) as the blank-faced plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds, a brilliant architect of flesh who also happens to be of the biggest sons-of-bitches sliming around the deep South. Seems this prick murdered his wife (the film suggests as much in a darkly hilarious flashback sequence) and his daughter Heather’s (Judith Chapman, Eurohorror legend Patty Shepard’s sister!) beau, the latter incident of which was witnessed by the girl and set her to running. In fact, when Scalpel begins, Heather has been MIA for a year and despite this, her now-dead Grandfather has willed his entire 5 million fortune to her, cutting out his despised son-in-law entirely.

Presumably livid (but as played by the chill Lansing, only visibly mildly put-out), Reynolds hatches a scheme to take a mutilated stripper into his lair and “remake” her face to be a dead-ringer for his gone-girl daughter. The idea is to pull a Henry Higgins and “teach” the scrappy young hustler to walk, talk and act exactly like Heather, thus fooling the family and attorneys into thinking that she IS in fact Heather. The plan works and the duo split the 5 million and – in a gently sick twist – begin a torrid sexual relationship behind closed doors. But when the real Heather shows up (also played by Chapman) things go from sweaty mad-science to full-blown psychodrama and very quickly, an unsavory and decidedly unhealthy menage-a-troi develops.

To say more about Grissmer’s crown-jewel of secret-sleaze would be to spoil the ample fun it offers. But man alive, is Scalpel fantastic. It’s like someone hired Jess Franco to direct an episode of Love, American Style. It’s a leering, straight-faced free-fall into bad behavior and yet it’s not gory at all (save for a few blood-blasts) and there’s no explicit sex and I cannot recall even a bad word uttered by any of the cast. In a sea of schlock cinema where everyone just keeps trying to out-porn the next guy, this restraint is admirable and charming and recalls the early days of post-code Hollywood cinema, when filmmakers had to weave-in the taboo gingerly so as not to alarm the thought police, thus making the movie feel even MORE dangerous. The cast is dynamite, with Lansing’s relaxed sociopathic doctor alternately amusingly chilling and eerie, especially when he breaks from his boozy stupor to giggle like a toothy madman. Chapman is excellent too, in a challenging duel role that makes you legitimately believe that she’s two people, more than a decade before David Cronenberg tried the same stunt in 1988’s Dead Ringers. Tying this grubby Southern Gothic together is a lush score by Dan Curtis’ right-hand man, the legendary Robert Cobert, who mines his work in Dark Shadows to sculpt a romantic, melancholy and haunting tapestry of sound.

If you’ve never seen Scalpel – and I’m willing to bet that many of you have not – I highly recommend you make time for it. They don’t make movies like this anymore.

Scalpel is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

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