SCALPEL [1977]: On Blu-ray Now

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Written by: ,
Starring: , , ,





REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic


Plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds learns at the will reading of his deceased father-in-law Robert Thorndyke that his missing daughter daughter Heather has inherited the family fortune of five million dollars. This makes Reynolds and his brother-in-law Bradley angry, so later that night while driving the pair come across a badly beaten go-go dancer whom Reynolds offers the chance of inheriting some of his daughter’s fortune if she agrees to allow him to reconstruct her face so she looks like his daughter, and to act like her. She accepts, and the scheme is in motion. Everything is going according to plan until the real daughter shows up….

Though initially coming across as another variant on the poetic French classic Eyes Without A Face which inspired a great many later films from The Awful Dr. Orlock to Mansion Of The Doomed, Scalpel soon begins to be influenced more by stuff as diverse as Pygmalion and Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, so those expecting a horror movie may be somewhat disappointed. The juicy and rather perverse melodrama that results though still has its disturbing aspects even it holds back on showing us extreme content, though the fact that the film was amazingly released as a ‘PG’ in the US remains surprising even if you know that some short cuts were made. As with a lot of these old cheapie efforts, it’s not the finest film technically [though this partly depends on which version you see – more on that later], but the acting’s mostly pretty good and there’s an element of dark humour to the whole thing, the film often realising the absurdity of it all but resisting the temptation to turn it all into an out and out comedy. I found it to be a less exciting but a better balanced work than John Grissmer’s later slasher Blood Rage, which also came out from Arrow Video some time ago and which I reviewed then. The two films share some of the same themes, notably of course that of two people who look the same and can be mistaken for each other, though of course in Blood Rage we were dealing with actual twins.

Scalpel is one of those films that, due to its relative obscurity, seems to have little information on the net floating around about it, so as I sometimes do I’m going to skip the ‘background’ paragraph I normally do for older films and delve straight into the film itself. We initially feel the anger of Reynolds, cut out from his father’s will, though as the will is read out and we here that Thorndyke blamed Reynolds for the disappearance of his daughter, we sense that something may not be right with him. And it’s possible to feel even more sorry for brother-in-law Bradley whom Thorndyke considered: “The supreme disappointment of our life”, and is just given – Thorndyke’s dog. In fact it’s soon revealed, via a flashback, that Reynolds killed Heather’s boyfriend and made it look like an accident. Still, he’s being kind when he reconstructs the face of a battered go-go dancer – isn’t he? The scene introducing her is odd, as she’s thrown out of a club and one of the bouncers bashes her head to a pulp against a wall. I know bouncers can be heavy handed when dealing with undesirables, but going as far as this? Surely Grissmer, who also wrote the screenplay, could have thought up another reason for her to have a face smashed up? You just have to go with absurd stuff in films of this ilk and forget that they’re taking place in anything resembling the real world.

After the operation and just a teeny bit of medical gore, the woman, whose actual name remains a mystery so is usually called Jane Doe, is understandably upset at her saviour having made her look like his daughter, though the offer of some of the money intended for Heather is a nice sweetener. Reynolds trains her to act and sound just like his daughter, and for a short while it’s rather like watching Vertigo but this time being allowed to see Gavin Elster train Judy Barton to masquerade as his wife Madelaine before Scottie starts trailing her. I also found leading man Robert Lansing’s resemblance to Cliff Robertson, who starred in the Vertigo-inspired Obsession around the same time, rather interesting. That film had an incestuous element though it wasn’t to the fore. You can’t say that about this one, Reynolds needing just one or two come-on lines before he commences a sexual relationship with this woman who, lest we forget, is now the spitting image of his daughter! But then by now we’ve had other examples of this guy’s insanity and cruelty, most memorably a flashback where his wife is drowning while he cheerfully paddles by in a little boat. Another amusing highlight is a funeral jazz party that puts the one in Live And Let Die to shame!

Jane is a success meeting the family until asked to play the piano. Heather was a progidy, you see, but Jane just can’t play at all. Then the real Heather shows up, and doesn’t actually seem that surprised to see that in her absence a replica has taken up residence in the house. The two women spend most of the time disliking each other, though occasionally manage to bond, one of them suggesting that they swap places to confuse Reynolds. In fact this idea, which you’d think the film might exploit a lot, isn’t used very much. The generally languid pace picks up in the final quarter and we even get a good old chase in the woods where the woman’s wearing a bikini. The plot gets a bit more complicated though I must say that I wasn’t surprised by the major revelation which will remind you of several other films. However, there certainly are a few surprises, like when you think somebody’s going to visit a house to try and kill someone and instead just does some plumbing work.

Direction is mostly workmanlike though there’s a great bit where the camera pans right from Reynolds saying to Heather: “You’re going to meet the family” to her actually doing so, the transition almost invisible. The film doesn’t always look much – well, if you watch the Arrow version, which gives us the film as it was preserved on the internegative and which has been approved by Grissmer. However, also on this release is something called the Lachman Grade. Cinematographer Edward Lachman made some colour adjustments to the release prints, and he’s tweaked the new restoration to reflect these. The difference is enormous, the Lachman Grade emphasising green and yellow to evoke a more humid atmosphere redolent of the Georgia setting and locales. I personally feel that the Lachman Grade is a far better watch than the more naturalistic Arrow Grade, the use of the two main colours making for some genuinely impressive shots. I mostly watched this version but sometimes switched back and forth between the two. Some bits which don’t look anything special on the Arrow Grade look far better in the Lachman Grade, for example the wood chase where the sun is setting behind the trees. Of course some may prefer the other one but kudos to Arrow for including both versions and allowing the viewer to make up their mind.

Robert Lancing makes for quite a believable [despite the silliness of most of the situations he’s in] psychopath, with his confident facade yet with a voice that seems to carrry some pain. Every now and again element of his insanity break through. Perhaps his best moment is when, in a film that’s all very restrained in terms of violence, there’s one rather upsetting death when somebody has a heart attack and drops to the floor. Reynolds calmly watches him die while making wisecracks and pounding out “Chopsticks” on the piano keys. Judith Chapman is rather odd. She’s, truth be told, a bit wooden in a few places, but she does nicely differentiating between the cocky and playful Jane [which she’s also far better at playing], and the timid and insecure Heather. There is some splitscreen which is almost seamless, but most of the scenes of the two together are all done either with edits or with a body double being shown from the back. It all comes off very well. Composer Bob Cobert provides a lushly romantic theme straight out of a 50’s movie which adds an ironic aspect and which sometimes reappears in a more dramatic variant, plus lots of the usual percussion. Overall Scalpel, while definitely not a neglected minor classic, is a fairly well crafted effort [and one of those films that, due to the nature of its story, is possibly more rewarding to watch the second time around], as long as you’re able to put to the back of your mind what somebody like, say, Brian De Palma would have done with this material.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆


Both versions of Scalpel benefit from the usual excellent Arrow restoration, replete with just the right level of grain and strong image depth. As I’ve said, I greatly prefer the Lachman Grade, but it really comes down to how you prefer it to look – more realistic or more stylised. I personally think that Scalpel is a picture that benefits from not looking quite’ normal’.

With no previous special features to port over from anywhere, Arrow have put together some of their own. I doubt that even big fans of this film would have ever expected it to be treated in this manner. The 11 minute The Cutting Edge has Grissmer, who’s only directed two feature films, talk about how he got into filmmaking, praise his lead cast members, and say how he’d like to make something like Manchester By The Sea. He’s even enthusiastic about the idea of a big budget remake! The 15-minute Southern Gothic has Lachman discuss his photography and go into a major defence of why he re-graded the film. The interesting question of whether modern digital techniques ought to be used or not is raised. And the 25-minute Dead Ringer has a very sparkly Chapman talk with warmth about her memories of the production and her co-workers. It seems that much fun was had after filming, going to clubs and the houses of local crew members who would cook them huge meals at midnight.

The audio commentaries of Richard Harland Smith are well regarded though the was the first time I’d heard one. He’s unearthed a lot of information, from beginning with the script’s origins in a true event where a man died in a car crash and his wife, who survived, had her face reconstructed, to the other actors who were asked to play Reynolds. He runs out of steam a bit towards the end where he talks for great length about Lansing, his other performances and a couple of stories involving him, but still maintains interest, with hardly any gaps. I would have preferred him to have criticised aspects of the film which he felt weren’t that great, but he seems a bit too in awe of it. Still a good commentary, and well worth a listen.

Though it’s hard to really call it a horror movie, Scalpel is a fun and interesting watch which, as Smith says, is definitely its own film despite the great many influences it wears on its sleeve. Arrow’s edition of the rare film seems to be the first decent home release it’s ever had, which should be reason enough to check it out.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆



*Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*Original Uncompressed Mono Audio Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*The Cutting Edge: Interview with writer and director John Grissmer
*Southern Gothic: Interview with cinematographer Edward Lachman
*Dead Ringer: Interview with star Judith Chapman
*Brand new audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith
*Original Theatrical Trailer
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Bill Ackerman

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 2132 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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