Saturday, March 10, 2012

Scalps (1983)

Written by: T.L. Lankford, Fred Olen Ray
Directed by: Fred Olen Ray
Starring: Jo-Ann Robinson, Richard Hench, Roger Maycock

It seems like just about every b-movie reviewer acquires a cinematic nemesis if they're in the game long enough. Either a particular filmmaker, a producer, a studio, or a franchise that just grinds their gears and makes them see red and spit fire. Years and years ago when my friends and I discovered the wild world of online reviewing, Andrew Borntreger taught us the fear and loathing of George Kennedy. Back in the days of the Tomb of Anubis, the boss man had a blood feud going with Vidmark/Tri-Mark. Just mention Andreas Schnaas around El Santo and he breaks out in hives. If you've been following me since at least the days of the Tomb, you'll know that my celluloid arch enemy is Fred Olen Ray.

I've given Ray money intentionally a couple of times, purchasing titles by other directors on his Retromedia label, but I have never once watched one of his movies on purpose. Based on DVD commentaries and the little intro segments he does for Retromedia sometimes, he actually seems like a pretty likeable guy, so I feel a little bad for declaring him my enemy. It's not even that his movies, should you go into them knowing what they are, are particularly awful by the standards (or lack thereof) of taste championed by this and many other sites. It's just that they always sound (and look, judging by the cover art) a lot better than they really are. This is at least the fourth time I can think of that I've rented a movie based on an interesting description or a cool bit of poster art, not paying any attention to cast or crew (except that one I picked because it had Charles Napier in it), only to pop it in, see the words “a film by Fred Olen Ray”, and yell, “SON OF A BITCH!”

Over the years I've become convinced that Fred has found where I live, gotten a copy of my house key, and sneaks into my bedroom at night, whispering subliminal suggestions to rent his movies into my sleeping ears. And that's why, for the rest of March, while everyone else is talking about basketboring – I mean ball – here at Cinemasochist Apocalypse, it's Fred Olen Ray-diation poisoning month.

This will mark the first time that I have knowingly sought out a Fred Olen Ray picture, but the whole thing kicked off with another accidental one, when Scalps showed up in my mail slot from Netflix. At this point, my queue is maxed out at 500 movies, and the stuff I'm getting now has been on there so long I don't even remember adding it, and sometimes even what it's about. So when I opened the envelope and saw the nifty artwork on the disc, I was intrigued. Then I looked at the paper sleeve to read the description, and right there, under the director listing was, you guessed it, Fred Olen Ray. SON OF A BITCH!

Professor Machen (Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman on screen in the 1948 serial) is a rogue (or so it's implied through his introductory scene where he's reamed out by his boss at the university for illegal activities pertaining to digging for artifacts on sacred Indian ground) archeology professor who is planning a major dig with some of his best students. Unfortunately for him, it's just as illegal as all those other digs he just got in trouble for, and so boss lady (Carroll Borland, who played Luna Mora in Mark of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi back in 1935!) sticks him doing inventory of the school's artifact collections all weekend.

He sends his students out without him, promising to meet them on Sunday before they all have to return to the campus, and so the six students take off in the one of those glorious 70's vintage station wagons that are as big as the antimatter space buzzard from The Giant Claw, or as big as a battleship to you regular folks. They stop at a gas station on the way to the badlands, and an old Indian warns them not past the black trees, because the land is cursed by the spirit of an Indian warrior named Black Claw. Despite the group's psychic hippy, D.J., having visions of a creepy, desiccated Indian ghost head and claiming they're all going to die, they press on, and wouldn't you know it, they all die!

Shortly after they arrive at their destination, the spirit of Black Claw possesses Randy, and he starts picking them off one by one. As the cast gets whittled down amidst the wonderfully atmospheric badlands locations, the spirit decides that a psychic girl with all kinds of latent potential is going to be a better host than a big beefy guy, and Professor Machen is in for a nasty surprise when he shows up Sunday morning.

Scalps was Ray's third movie as a director, and oddly enough it looks more accomplished than a lot of his more recent stuff. So much of his output these days is intended for the SyFy Channel or similar markets, and anything shot on digital video pretty much looks like a TV show. This flick was still from the days when, if you wanted to make a movie, even a low budget one, you had to actually make a damn movie. You had to lug cameras and lights and film and a full crew out in to the desert, with no computers or digital anything. Shooting on film automatically lends a production an air of legitimacy that a cheap made for TV movie just doesn't have.

It's surprisingly gory and has a pretty rough rape scene in it considering Ray says in the commentary track that he's never seen Last House On the Left because he doesn't want to see graphic sexual violence. In fact, this flick was one of the most heavily censored movies of its time (which seems odd since, despite this being gory for a Fred Olen Ray movie, it isn't all that graphic considering some of its contemporaries), and several separate sources from Canada, Germany, and the U.S. had to be spliced together to get as close to the original cut as possible for the DVD release.

It was helpful to listen to that commentary in understanding how the movie turned out the way it did. There are scenes spliced in seemingly at random throughout, of the exceptionally competent (for such a low budget flick) makeup effects. In Ray's original cut they weren't there, but when the movie was sold to a distributor they decided it moved too slowly, so they found every bit of FX footage they could get (including test shots that were never intended for the movie!) and slapped it in any old place. The result damn near ruined what could have, from what Ray described, been a solid little horror flick. The desert locations (shot on a ranch that is now owned by Alice Cooper) add a great deal of atmosphere to the proceedings, and the soundtrack, although severely overused (there are only a couple of different cues, and they are played in an almost nonstop loop through the whole movie), is effective. If it had been used more sparingly it would have been great.

I think if we could have seen Ray's original vision for the movie, it would have been one of his best. I realize that seems like damning with faint praise considering what I've said about his oeuvre up to this point, and it certainly isn't Evil Dead, but I honestly think without those random FX shots breaking up the movie's momentum, and with some restraint used with the music, Scalps could have been an excellent low budget horror flick. The fact that it still has a cult following at all speaks to that vision shining through the hack job the distributor did on it.

When I thought up this little theme project, I figured it was just going to be good for a few laughs at my constantly accidentally renting Fred Olen Ray movies. Instead, it's beginning to seem a little therapeutic. I think by the end of this set of reviews I may have made my peace with Mr. Olen Ray and try to watch some more of his movies, y'know, on purpose.

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