Arrow Blu-ray Review: Scalpel (1977)

Written by John Grissmer
Directed by John Grissmer
Starring Robert Lansing, Judith Chapman, Arlen Dean Snyder
Released January, 1977
RT 95 min.
Home Video Arrow Video
Classic Horrors rating =8 (out of 10)

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In the 14-minute bonus feature interview with director John Grissmer on the new Arrow Video Blu-ray release, Scalpel, Grissmer says he and writer/editor Joseph Weintraub wanted the movie to be “spooky and plotty.”  With cinematographer Edward Lachman, they shot the film they wanted to make, “the exact manifestation” of their ideas.  In 1977, it performed only “marginally” in theaters, but later did “well” on videotape.  (“The distributors didn’t know how to sell it,” says Grissmer.)  It’s no surprise Scalpel may never have been on the radar, but what a delight it is to discover it now!

Like Grissmer says, it’s heavy on plot.  However, it’s not complicated.  There are so many twists and turns, especially during the final act, that it speeds along its 95-minute running time by virtue of its story alone, instead of its action.  Robert Lansing plays one of the most despicable people I’ve seen and, as film historian Richard Harland Smith says on the commentary track, Scalpel “lays out the foibles of the main character right away.”   He’s unsure, as am I, whether Lansing’s Dr. Phillip Reynolds is a psychopath or a sociopath.  Does he act for a specific reason or does he just not care about the people around him?  In either case, he’s a bad guy.

As with so many performances that happen almost by accident, the role wasn’t originally intended for Lansing.  I can’t see Kevin McCarthy, John Forsythe or Hal Holbrook as Reynolds, though.  Lansing is perfect, balancing the charm of a successful plastic surgeon with his accompanying arrogance.  Just when you think you know what he will do, or how far he will go, he takes a step further, never threatening to go over the top.  The least of his sins is the fact that he will alter the face of a bruised and beaten stripper to look like his missing daughter so he can get his hands on the $5 million inheritance left by her grandfather.

We see during an early flashback that Reynolds murdered his daughter Heather’s (Judith Chapman) boyfriend after watching the two of them in bed.  (Heather witnessing this crime is what causes her to run away from home.)  By the time the credits roll, this poor guy won’t be his only victim.  Reynolds succeeds in transforming “Jane Doe,” for all intents and purposes, into his daughter.  And the movie hasn’t begun to get strange yet.  No, for me that happens when Reynolds starts looking at Jane with a little more than fatherly love in his eyes.  Then, the tension escalates when Heather returns home… and the movie is only half over.

That’s all I want to say about the plot.  Every turn is a surprise, not expected, yet not superfluous.  Scalpel isn’t strictly a horror movie, although horrific things happen.  It’s more a suspense thriller, a “Southern Gothic,” as both Grissmer and Lachman call it, with music by the great Robert Cobert (Dark Shadows) celebrating the ups of the story and intensifying the downs, like the roller coaster Reynolds and Jane ride at Six Flags Over Georgia when they’re celebrating their financial windfall.  I never expected a movie like this from its sensationalistic plot summary or original title, False Face.  It’s so much better for what it really is than you’d ever believe.

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One thing it isn’t, is gory, and that fact lends it some credibility.  Yeah, it’s not easy watching poor Jane’s head knocked against a brick wall, but for a movie that revolves around plastic surgery, it could be a lot more graphic.  The worst is a relatively brief scene of a skin graft “mesher,” but if you imagine Reynolds is just slicing a piece of cheese, it’s not so bad.  Ultimately, the movie answers questions you never thought to ask, proving that it’s well-conceived and written.  I could go on gushing, but just give it a watch.  I’d be surprised if you weren’t entertained.

The Blu-ray presentation offers two visual “grades,” both restored from the same physical print.  As Lachman explains in his 15-minute bonus feature interview, time has washed away some aesthetics of his original cinematic vision.  He participated in the film restoration by adding back some of the color, contrast and depth to the first transfer.  It’s interesting to hear him speak of the problems in preserving and storing film, but for a layman, the Lachman grade looks like it was run through a golden filter.  You don’t notice it as much on its own, but the first transfer looks starkly pale in comparison.  (The disc has a nifty feature where you can flip back and forth.)

Lachman has since become a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Cinematography for Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2016).  He says he was still developing his style during Scalpel, his first feature film, as far as shot construction and camera movement were concerned.  But it’s clear he already had a strong eye for lighting and mood.  Some of the exterior shots in his version of the restoration are absolutely gorgeous and are, as with so much else about this movie, much better than what you’d expect from it.  It’s also interesting hearing him talk about the “rudimentary optical effects” used to depict the “twin” characters.  Rudimentary, maybe, but seamless.

Finally, I want to mention that Smith’s commentary starts heavy on each and every actor that appears on screen, regardless of the length.  I like more than only actor information in my commentaries, and he soon delivers with an entertaining discussion that’s part travelogue, identifying Atlanta geography and locations, and part behind the scenes anecdotes, including obvious collaboration with Grissmer.  At times, he’s quite funny.  (White belt and shoes?  Audience sympathy for that character is low!)  He ends with some stories revealing his personal connection to Robert Lansing, a perfectly appropriate way to wrap up this terrific package.

Bonus Materials

  • 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
  • Brand new audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith
  • Brand new crew interviews
  • 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

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