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Scalpel (1977)

Arrow Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 2/27/2018

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/1/2018

The term "Southern Gothic" gets thrown about quite a bit, mostly referring to novels from the early-to-mid 20th Century. The stories take place in the southern United States, and often deal with eccentric figures who are doing unusual things. Sometimes, something supernatural is involved, but the tales usually focus more on the strange actions and relationships of the characters. As with many labels, many things are inaccurately called "Southern Gothic" and the genre is actually difficult to pull off, especially in movies. Therefore, it's ironic that British label Arrow Video has unearthed such a unique specimen of the genre with 1977's Scalpel.

Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing) is a successful Atlanta-based plastic surgeon. Despite his professional success, his private-life is a mess. Following the accidental drowning of her boyfriend, Phillip's daughter, Heather (Rita Chapman), ran away, leaving no word where she'd gone. Phillip's father-in-law has just died, and he's left his $5 million fortune to Heather. But, as she's absent, the money remains untouched. One night, while out drinking with his brother-in-law, Bradley (Arlen Dean Snyder), Phillip happens upon a young woman whose face has been beaten beyond recognition. He has her rushed to the hospital, where he suddenly gets an idea. Realizing that this "Jane Doe" is approximately the same age, height, and weight as Heather, he uses his skills as a plastic surgeon to give her Heather's face. Then, when she's healed, she can pose as Heather and collect the inheritance. Phillip tries to predict every angle of his plan, but no one can forecast basic human nature.

I'm fairly well-versed in exploitation films from the 1970s, but Scalpel was new to me and, therefore, I don't know if Writer/Director John Grissmer and Co-Writer Joseph Weintraub set out to make a Southern Gothic, but they certainly succeeded. Let's check the boxes. Southern setting? Check. Antebellum-style mansion? Check. People who drink a lot and throw parties where at least one person is wearing a seersucker suit? Check. Yes, the Southern part is certainly well-represented here. But, what about the Gothic part? Does Scalpel succeed there as well? You bet it does. We've got Phillip's bizarre plan to gain an inheritance. (That's often a big deal in stories like this.) We've got several questionable deaths. And then we have the strange relationship which develops between Phillip and the girl who looks just like his daughter. (This isn't explored much, but there's certainly enough to make things creepy.)

Even with all of those things happening, Scalpel is a weird movie. If you cut out one shot of brief nudity, the whole thing would have the feeling of a made-for-TV movie from the 70s, as it's heavy on the melodrama and, for those who will know what this means, it simply has the look of that kind of project. While Phillip's plan is easy to grasp, from the outset, it doesn't make any sense. The operating room, not to mention the whole hospital, is full of people who are most likely aware of Heather. Wouldn't one of them realize that he's just made this stranger look like her? The second half of the movie really goes off the rails, as the characters behave in ways which don't make seem logical and their emotional responses don't feel genuine, even for polite southerners.

All of these things may make Scalpel sound flawed, which it is, but they are also what makes it watchable. The movie's odd tone may enrage some, but I found it intriguing. Again, the overall project has the look and pace of a made-for-TV movie, but there is a level of sleaze and depravity lurking just beneath the surface which makes one say, "I don't think they would have shown this on TV." This is also one of those movies which you watch simply to see how it's going to end. Will Phillip get caught? What does the new Heather think of all this? Did Phillip really use that term to describe someone's blonde hair? Scalpel is made up of elements which we've seen many times before, but they are presented here through a bizarre Southern prism which gives it a slightly new flavor. This isn't twisted enough to satisfy these who are looking something truly weird, but if the idea of an insane soap opera interests you, then you may want to check it out.

Scalpel does not represent the way in which all Southerners act on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Arrow Video. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The Disc offers two versions of the film, one which retains Cinematographer Edward Lachman's "warm" Southern look and another which has a more mainstream look. The only real difference is that the Lachman version looks slightly darker. The image is sharp and clear, showing mild grain and no obvious defects from the source materials. The colors look good, and the image is never overly dark or bright. The image shows good depth and details. The Disc carries a Linear PCM Mono audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 2.3 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The track doesn't offer any dynamic effects, but the actors are always audible and the score doesn't overpower anything.

The Scalpel Blu-ray Disc contains a few extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from blogger Richard Harland Smith who provides sort of an historical retrospective on the film. "The Cutting Edge" (14 minutes) is a modern-day interview with Director/Co-Writer John Grissmer, who gives a look at his career and talk about the making of Scalpel. Judith Chapman is up next, as we get a new interview with her in "Dead Ringer" (17 minutes), and we see that she has aged quite well. "Southern Gothic" (15 minutes) offers a talk with Cinematographer Edward Lachman who was apparently on his way to DarkmanCon. The extras are rounded out by an IMAGE GALLERY and a TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2018 by Mike Long