John Grissmer/ USA/ 1977/ 95 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 19 Feb 2018
A key moral of Scalpel is that things aren’t always as they seem, so never judge a book by its cover. This is very much the case in the way one approaches this film, as much as it applies to the plot itself. You’d be forgiven for bracing yourself for a nasty grindhouse slash-fest; an early video nasty doomed to obscurity in the wake of Hallowe’en. Think again.
After his rich father-in-law dies and leaves everything to his granddaughter Heather (Judith Chapman), deranged plastic surgeon Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing) uses his skills to sculpt the face of a maimed topless dancer in his daughter’s image and claim the money. Heather has been missing for over a year due to her fleeing after witnessing him murdering her boyfriend, so he coaches “Jane Doe” to act like Heather. One day however, Heather herself comes back.
Feeling like the salacious B-movie cousin of Georges Franju‘s Eyes Without a Face and Pedro Almodovar‘s The Skin I Live In, Scalpel operates (pun very much intentional) very much as a lurid psychological thriller rather than the medical horror you may expect. As with those other films, there are themes of revenge, male domination, and fatherly love gone very, very wrong. Unlike those films, at no point is the audience expected to sympathise with its antagonist.
Lansing drags this standard tale of greed and murder some way towards respectability, doing an excellent job of letting the patrician, authoritative mask he adopts slip every now and then. Director John Grissmer is also a much better director than many schlock-meisters of the time. There are several haunting shots such as Reynolds serenely watching from a pedalo as his wife drowns; and a celebratory funeral complete with marching jazz band is vibrantly staged.
Chapman also does a good job as both Heather and Jane, although once the two are together after Heather’s return things become confusing, as this coincides with the beginning of the increasingly bizarre plot twists and turns. It soon gets difficult to track exactly who-is-who, although this certainly makes it interesting when Reynolds’ Henry Higgins act takes an even darker turn and a queasy dose of incest is injected into the subtext.
Enjoyment of Scalpel will ultimately depend on one’s ability to suspend disbelief at the outlandish story, which leaves a few unanswered questions and trusts in several leaps of logic. However, at a time when a fantasy film about a woman filling in love with a merman is an Oscar front-runner perhaps this isn’t such a stretch. This dark, Southern Gothic take on Frankenstein is another little hidden gem unearthed by those nice culture miners at Arrow.