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Don't believe anything you've read or may have thought about Scalpel. Believe only what I'm about to tell you. You haven't seen it, unless you used to lurk around the 99-cent rentals at the Mom 'n' Pop back in the day, and even then you were wary. You couldn't figure out if it was a horror movie, no one you knew had ever seen it, there were so many red flags that you passed it by.
Now Arrow Video thrusts it in your face again, late in the game of pushing also-ran movies onto physical media before it's too late and we're all reduced to 'choosing' from the same 2000 movies available to stream. Which means you still think there's something wrong with Scalpel. So for brevity's sake; Scalpel is the best mid-'70s whacked-out Southern Gothic that you've never really heard of.
Abandon your thoughts of Euro-trash gore, or sleazy horror, and ditch the idea that you're even getting a thriller. I really don't want to say too much more. If you can imagine Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte ... filtered through SCTV you're on the right track.
Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing) is a high-rolling plastic surgeon on a real unlucky streak. He's lost his wife, his daughter, and when his father-in-law dies, he misses out on the 5 million bucks destined for the missing daughter, too. Meantime, an unlucky stripper has her face inexplicably bashed into a brick wall a few times by an aggrieved bouncer. When Reynolds stumbles upon the essentially faceless stripper, he hatches the stupidest scheme imaginable for collecting the inheritance.
Mannered daftness, intentional or otherwise, thence unfolds in delightful fashion, as implausibility stacks upon implausibility. Jaws will drop, chuckles and guffaws will ensue, and unwary viewers will be treated to shameful fun, as the weirdest group of characters you can imagine stumble towards their almost-deserved fates.
Lansing and Judith Chapman display the perfect amount of tact in their respective roles as sleazy connivers, while journeyman director John Grissmer manages to bring a bit of subtle craft to a ludicrous plot, and cinematographer Edward Lachman casts the entire affair in a sickly, sunlit glow. If you're looking for a lost Video Nasty, as the title and marketing might suggest, you're in the wrong place, but if you'd love a few slices of delicious '70s cheese, please step up to the plate. This typically lavish Arrow Video release is at the very least Recommended.
Scalpel arrives from Arrow Video in a new 2k restoration, (which you can watch in two different color schemes) and looks great, gauzy and rich, with saturated colors and evocative film grain. Detail levels are what one would both hope for and expect, being robust in close-up and softening a bit throughout the depth of field. Details hold up fairly well in darker scenes, and artifacting doesn't present a problem. Arrow delivers a color-corrected version also, which seems to make things look a bit crisper (maybe a psychological effect?) while betraying the director of photography's original vision. It's nice to have both for comparison.
The original uncompressed PCM mono audio track delivered is quite fine as well. Scalpel is mostly a dialog-driven movie, so nothing flashy is going on, but that dialog is presented clearly and cleanly, with out any damage or distortion. There are some pivotal songs sung by cast members, and an evocative score, which also sound great. They're mixed in at an appropriate level and feature a fairly good dynamic range.
Ever generous, Arrow loads up a good slate of extras for this forgotten film, starting with Reversible Cover Art featuring a new design by Twins of Evil. Next up is a 30-page Liner Notes Booklet with credits, stills, information about the transfer, and 2 essays, one new one by Bill Ackerman discussing director John Grissmer's career, and one a 2008 look at the film by David Konow, reprinted with the permission of Fangoria magazine.
English SDH Subtitles, a brief Introduction by the director, an Image Gallery and the Original Theatrical Trailer comprise the lighter extras faire. A new Audio Commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith, is well-organized and wide-ranging; from critical assessment of the movie, to side-notes on locations used in filming, to everything in-between, Smith has done his homework, crafting an entertaining and informative track. Lastly, we get 45-minutes total of Interviews (3 of them, all roughly equal in length) from Grissmer, actress Judith Chapman, and DP Edward Lachman. Each one is involving and interesting in their own ways. Finally, Arrow presents Scalpel in Lachman's approved 2k restoration, preserving his sickly green-and-yellow color palette, while also presenting a new color-graded version so you can see the movie with 'normal; colors as well. It's a very interesting comparison.
Scalpel isn't the horror-thriller that it was mistakenly marketed as, but if you approach it with an open mind, you'll find a deep and stylish pseudo-Southern Gothic, with solid performances and enough bizarre twists and turns to keep you on your toes throughout. With that in mind, and considering the fact that it comes in another great Arrow Video package, this fun-and-funky, sleazeball '70s shocker is Recommended for fans.
- Kurt Dahlke