Plot: What’s it about?
The Seventies was such an incredible decade for filmmaking. Somehow, even the melodramatic B-movies of that time were so much more fun and interesting than most of the A-List films produced today. Such is the case with John Grissner’s 1977 Southern thriller-melodrama Scalpel. Arrow recently gave this film a high definition upgrade to Blu-ray with the assistance of cinematographer Edward Lachman. Let’s cut right into this one and begin the diagnosis.
The film begins with Dr. Philip Reynolds (Robert Lansing) teaching a course in surgery to some interns. He is well known for his skills at facial reconstruction. His daughter Heather (Judith Chapman) has left the house a year before due to her boyfriend’s untimely demise. When Heather is bequeathed a large inheritance and the father is left out of the will, he sees an opportunity to claim the inheritance for himself. A topless dancer, Jane, is horribly disfigured and is rushed to the hospital. Seeing her facial structure, he realizes through surgery he can make her a spitting image of his daughter. She agrees to his terms once he has completed the surgery seeing a way out of her previous life. For her to fool the family members that might get in the way, Reynolds will need to train her to be like his daughter, who was eloquent and skilled.
This film is a good example of a guilty pleasure. Given the strange incestuous undertones and melodramatic nature of the film, it could have completely backfired (and I am sure for some film viewers it was a terrible way to spend an evening at the drive-through.) For myself, the film had vitality and gallows humor that I could not resist. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and found myself laughing as the plot unfolded in fun and interesting ways. It feels more like a soap opera than a horror film, so know that going in.
The first and best reason to watch the film is Robert Lansing’s performance. He could have phoned it in, but instead he filled the role with a sociopathic smiling bravado that is fantastic to watch. The second reason to watch is the performance by Judith Chapman who does an excellent job in both of her roles. I always found it easy to tell the difference between the two characters she portrayed, which is a good indicator of her talent in the film. The third reason to watch the film is the cinematography by Edward Lachman. He was just getting his start but all the seeds of his later works are there. The final reason to watch is the excellent score by David Covert. It is so much a product of its time and place that I couldn’t help but feel it elevated every scene in which it appeared. These aspects all worked well together to make something unique and fun.
Overall, this is not a horror film so much as a melodrama. I am thankful that Arrow chose to shine the spotlight on this little gem of a film. I recommend checking it out if it marked off any boxes for you.
Video: How’s it look?
I would summarize the specifications, but Arrow Video provides the following thorough and very lengthy explanation in the liner notes:
Scalpel was exclusively restored by Arrow Films and is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with mono sound. Although subject to an extensive search, the original 35mm camera negative for Scalpel could not be located. The best available film element was a 35mm colour reversal internegative (CRI), which was scanned in 2K resolution at OCN Labs, Connecticut. The film was graded and restored at R3store Studios, London. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches and other instances of film wear were repaired or removed through a combination of digital restoration tools and techniques. Scalpel is presented on this release in two different colour graded versions, both from the same restored materials.
Director of photography Edward Lachman shot Scalpel with a “Southern Gothic” look in mind, containing strong warm tones with an intentional emphasis on yellows and greens. Lachman supervised and approved the grading for this version, which represents this stylistic look as intended. The second version presents the film in a more traditional grade, and is included here for comparative purposes.”
This transfer is really unique due to the ability to choose the version that Lachman feels is closer to his intent or Arrow’s transfer which looks closer to the look of other films of that area. I found this so interesting that I kept switching back and forth between the two throughout the course of the film. I feel that Lachman’s transfer looks more interesting and would be my preferred way to watch the film, but there are a few occasions where the other transfer outshines it. Overall, having two different color grades is a really fun experiment that could be a great idea for some of these older titles. I think this transfer looks great overall with obvious dedication put into the work. Lachman would go on to do cinematography on numerous fantastic films including The Virgin Suicides and his work here is very solid for how early in his career he was. Overall, I would give this transfer very high marks.
Audio: How’s it sound?
I will rely on Arrow’s liner notes one more time, but less extensively:
The original mono soundtrack was remastered at Deluxe Audio Services. Some instances of synch appear loose, in keeping with the post-dubbing used in some sequence in the original production.
This mono soundtrack is really good. Dialogue is crisp and clear but the star of the track is the melodramatic and wonderful soundtrack. The music plays a big role in making this film stand out. It reminds me of the music from a show like Days of Our Lives, overly dramatic and full of foreboding. The music is by composer David Cobert who had done the music for the television show Dark Shadows. The music is really as good as I implied above and makes this track pop. Overall, despite a little bit of hiss or distortion occasionally, this track was very enjoyable.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- The Cutting Edge – an interview with writer/director John Grissmer. He talks about his live of Citizen Kane, his start in the business, and his work on the film in Georgia. A solid piece.
- Dead Ringer – an interview with actress Judith Chapman from December 2017. This is an enjoyable interview. Looking at her filmography after this film, it feels natural that she would end up working for decades on television and soap operas after her performance in the film. I enjoyed hearing her thoughts on the film. She really does a great job in the movie in both roles.
- Southern Gothic – an interview with cinematographer Edward Lachman recorded in December 2017. He would go on to shoot some incredible films afterwards but this was his first 35mm film. Given his strong track record it was fun to see him interviewed about this project and why he made the extra effort to help with the restoration of the film.
- Image Gallery
- Audio Commentary with Richard Harland Smith – an energetic and entertaining commentary on the film. Smith knows a great amount about the film and gives some great background information.
- Edward Lachman Grade and Arrow Grade – this film comes with two viewing options. Cinematographer Edward Lachman shot the film in strong yellow and green tones to achieve a “Southern gothic” feel. Arrow’s transfer is more traditional in coloring.
The Bottom Line
Scalpel is most definitely a guilty pleasure. Many will be turned off by its ridiculous Southern Gothic soap opera nature, but I found the film entertaining as hell. There is a lot of good stuff in the flick, but my favorite aspect is how Robert Lansing helps to sell the gallows humor in the film. Arrow have provided some great supplements and the transfers for video and audio are both top-notch. I really enjoyed this one. Highly recommended.