Arrow Video: Scalpel (1977) - Reviewed

Writer-director John Grissmer’s career was something of a blip on the cinematic radar, having only ever directed two features which remain in the annals of cult obscurity.  While most only know his 1987 VHS era slasher flick Blood Rage, ten years prior the filmmaker joined forces with the great cinematographer Edward Lachman to deliver this deep fried piece of Southern Gothic whose title Scalpel can be somewhat misleading.  

When you see the poster of a bloody scalpel next to a woman’s bandaged face, we’re inclined to think this will be a kind of sleazy Eyes Without a Face.  In actuality its a mistaken identity thriller with touches of My Fair Lady and The Changeling (of all movies) about a crazed doctor who hatches a wild plan to seize a fortune irrespective of however many bodies will need to fall to attain it. 

Starring Robert Lansing as plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds, Scalpel presents the deranged doctor with a dilemma: his daughter Heather (Judith Chapman) has run away after her boyfriend perishes under mysterious circumstances, taking with her any and all opportunities to get a piece of her impending inheritance.  That is until one night on the drive home from work, he runs into a disfigured and battered showgirl whose facial structure is eerily similar to that of his daughter. 

Thus begins the master plan to reshape the woman’s face to be like Heather’s with the imposter trained to sport her mannerisms and personality.  Though the newly reformed stand in for Heather seems to hit it off well with preexisting friends and family, blending in seamlessly, things become complicated as suspicions about the woman and the mercurial nature of her “disappearance” grow.

Marketed as a slasher when it’s really much closer to something like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, showcasing the region and eccentric traditional local customs such as a funeral which plays like a Jazz party, Scalpel couldn’t be more removed from the advertising campaign if it tried.  Playing a bit like a travelogue, the film is mostly notable for Edward Lachman’s scenic and warm cinematography of the Southern Georgia countryside and small-town American neighborhoods. 

In an unusual technical move, Arrow Video provided both the original theatrical version of the film as well as a new regraded color scheme overseen by Lachman which stays truer to his vision for the film.  Having gone on to shoot Erin Brockovich and The Virgin Suicides, the film’s shift from naturalistic native colors to Lachman’s preference for deep shadows, yellow/greenish hues and oversaturation of colors will remind some of Lars Von Trier’s big screen debut The Element of Crime.  The image is so different from how it was originally exhibited some may find it hard to digest but having watched it I can’t imagine Scalpel looking any other way.

Performances from the two leads are strong with Robert Lansing making the plastic surgeon into a lecherous, murderous and scheming madman.  The heavy lifting of course is carried by Judith Chapman as “Heather”, playing both roles with subtle characterizations differentiating the doppelganger from the real person.  It’s a tricky role to play and director Grissmer and Lachman utilize a number of techniques to present two women played by the same one onscreen.

Mostly though, in the years since it’s release and disappearance from the public eye until now, Scalpel is Ed Lachmann’s movie which is more interested in the feeling and flavor of Southern Georgia than it is in the labyrinthine plot machinations.  In a way the film originated as a B-thriller of sorts before time and a cinematographic genius decided to revisit it as a snapshot of a particular area of Georgia with all of its wild eccentricities in full view.  Just go in knowing this isn’t really a horror slasher as it is a thriller highlighting a region of the Deep South often overlooked by the movies.

- Andrew Kotwicki