When Dr. Phillip Reynolds' father-in-law dies, he leaves his entire $5,000,000 estate to his granddaughter Heather (Judith Chapman) . She has run away following the drunken drowning of her boyfriend in the family pool. Reynolds (Robert Lansing) - a plastic surgeon - hatches a plan to claim the inheritance for himself, by reconstructing the face of a young woman to look like his daughter. However, his obsessions and twisted psyche get in the way.
Originally released under the name False Face, Scalpel can be described as a Southern-fried Gothic. Taking its cues from Literature, the genre springs from both horror and comedy and revels in the macabre, like its Gothic roots. It is often used to comment on American Modernity and the social issues within the narrative. Scalpel is not alone in this genre, other examples include: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1964), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and , alongside the more recent Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Scalpel has a strange dream-like quality helped tremendously by the cinematography and the amazing colour grade. It does, however, put you on the back foot from the opening frames, when we are first introduced to Dr. Philip Reynolds. The good doctor seems a little off and as the film progresses we see just how unhinged he is. The film floats through some of the more disturbing elements of its plot with a dark sense of humour and total awareness of what it is. There is an element of the melodramatic to the film, as well as a layer of dream logic that powers some of the characters’ actions which is somewhat off-putting , but it is handled expertly by director John Grissmer and the cast.
While it is Robert Lansing - the star of some mindbending 60s sci-fi television and film - that gets top billing, the film actually belongs to Judith Chapman, best known for her appearances in Magnum PI and The Young and the Restless. Lansing, as Reynolds, is certainly creepy with his slightly sardonic attitude that is eventually ripped away to reveal the fractured psyche of a sociopath bug it is Chapman who is performing double duty as Philips’ daughter Heather and the stranger he operates on to look like Heather.
At times, it can be hard to tell the two apart physically, though that's the whole point of the plot. Chapman is able to channel enough idiosyncracies into the respective characters to determine which is Heather and which is Jane. The latter is more than capable of giving as good as she gets and is clearly more than just a victim of domestic abuse, while The former is revealed to be more than the shy retiring daughter. It is the complexities in the characters that elevates the story.
The main draw for this release, however, is the option to choose between two different grades of the film. Either to go with the film’s the original grade overseen by cinematographer Edward Lachman - who would go on to shoot Erin Brockovich, The Virgin Suicides and Carol - or the more traditional grade produced by Arrow Video. Lachman's frame drips with an otherworldliness, coated with a sepia tone base. It adds to the atmosphere of the film, conveying the hazy and sweltering heat of the American south.
While it is commendable that Arrow has provided a different grade to the film, I would perhaps argue that the attempt was unnecessary, as surely by providing a different grade to the one the cinematographer intended you are compromising the vision of the film and taking away from what Scalpel is in the process. That American Gothic style is lost somewhat with the more traditional grade, as it no longer contains that special quality that Lachman was going for. Both are serviceable, but I would recommend Lachman's over Arrow’s. However, Arrow makes it easy to switch between the two, either at the main disc menu or during the film itself.
Both grades look amazing on Arrow’s disc presented in 1080p from a 2K restoration. I am going to recommend the original grade over the Arrow grade, just because it has a lot more atmosphere, but Arrow has taken care to present a flawless image with both. This same care is then applied to the audio track, with an uncompressed Mono Audio soundtrack that has that same warmth to drown in, thanks to that familiar 1970s fuzz that is barely perceptible. The disc is easy to use with Arrow’s standard clear layout and optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
As for extras, Arrow, as usual, has done a great job, from the extensive interviews with cast and crew, including director John Grissmer, star Judith Chapman and cinematographer, Edward Lachman, to the top-notch commentary track from historical Richard Harland Smith. There is also a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer. Furthermore, also included in the first pressing of the disc is a booklet containing a new essay from Bill Ackerman.
Arrow should be commended in presenting a film that has been languishing in B-movie obscurity and rescuing an interesting addition (or introduction depending on film knowedge) to the genre as well as cinematographer Edward Lachman's filmography. The 1970s horror story may not be the greatest but all the separate elements aside, like the colour grade, acting and direction, combine to create something wholly new and fresh. The disc that the film comes on looks stunning, and Arrow’s inclusion of all the extras means that it is a complete experience, one that fans of American Gothic or good cinematography should pick up.