Six archeology students head for the hills in search of Native American artifacts. Despite the warnings of DJ (Jo Ann Robinson), the class disturbs the ancient Indian burial ground and unleashes the vengeful spirit of Black Claw. After possessing Randy (Richard Hench), Black Claw hunts down the others with an arsenal of stone-age weapons.
Fred Olen Ray, a low budget icon, tackled the slasher genre with his second film, Scalps. On a technical level, Scalps is a bad movie. Scenes change from day to night then back to day at random and some scenes are out of focus. Also, the editing is a mess with scenes shown out of order. Images are thrown at the viewer for no particular reason and give away the ending.
But nobody watches a film like Scalps to learn about the filmmaking process. It's all about the gore, baby. Despite the low budget, Scalps has some pretty impressive deaths, a little too realistic some may say. The actual scalping scene is just as good as Savini's in Maniac. Listen for the slurping sound when the scalp is pulled away from the skull. Slit throats and severed heads gush fountains of blood. These death scenes are made more powerful by the screaming, moaning, and thrashing of the actors.
Scalps is easily one of Ray's darkest movies. A combination of desert landscapes and sinister soundtrack gives Scalps a gritty, nihilistic atmosphere. Only a couple of unintentional laughs break the oppressive mood. "Valuable" finds are tossed around like baseballs among the students. The other laugh-riot is Lionman, a muppet with attitude. I don't know why he's in the film but you can tell he's excited to be on camera. One expects Lionman to sing the alphabet or explain the advantages of drinking milk.
Gore hounds will get more enjoyment from watching Scalps than the casual slasher fan. There's never any great mystery as to the killer's identity or the fate of the characters. The end credits promise a sequel called Scalps 2: The Return of DJ but it was never filmed. Maybe one day Fred Olen Ray will take slasher fans back into the hills for another tale of grave robbing and revenge.