In 1983 a sleazy little slasher film hit screens titled Scalps. It’s the story of a group of college students who set out for the desert in (illegal) search of Indian artifacts. However, they awaken a vengeful Indian spirit who possesses and attacks them one-by-one causing a supernatural, gruesome bloodbath.
Scalps is very different from your average Slasher movie. It’s full of symbolism and mystery. In fact, the shots of “The Lion Man” take the cake as one of the most bizarre and surreal imagery in an 80’s slasher. The soundtrack is very eerie and constant. It’s almost always going through the entire film, with whole montages featuring only the spooky score while they drive and hike to their destination.
It’s true that a lot of the movie is over-dubbed, which is only really obvious in the beginning then you sort of get used to it. But there are a handful of scenes (like at the gas station) where live audio was used and you can barely make out the conversation because of the loud, nearby traffic. The majority of the night scenes were filmed day-for-night and when cut in with the actual night scenes it’s quite obvious. But the movie has charm. It has a nice build, the gore is intense and the music very fitting. There is actually very little padding as the movie opens right up with a gruesome death.
It was released to theaters by 21st Century Film Corporation in December of 1983. It fared decently enough and was eventually released to VHS on a Double Feature from Continental Video with The Slayer from 1981. The Double Feature VHS contained a much different cut of the film. It was shortened from 83 minutes to 74 minutes – basically to get both films to fit onto one VHS tape. Although all of the violence was left intact, a lot of the character development and “montage” scenes were cut short. It was finally released in its almost-full length version from Imperial Entertainment a couple years later.
Over the years the VHS copies began to become less common to find and it wasn’t until 2004 that director Fred Olen Ray’s company Retromedia Entertainment would make it become widely available again. This time, we were treated to a fully uncut composite of the film, made from a heavily censored German master, a Canadian master and the American VHS, the only print containing the infamous scalping scene. While not a perfect, pristine version, we were at least able to see the film in its whole gory glory.
After the original video release a Canadian film hit video shelves called Ghost Dance. Many people believe it to be an imitator, but this writer wonders if it were actually inspiration. It wasn’t released to VHS until 1988 but it was actually made in 1980. Also, an actual remake of Scalps called Blood Desert was filmed in Kuwait in the early 2000’s but since they didn’t obtain the rights, it was never officially released. Later in 2007, Scalps II: The Return of D.J. a short fan film sequel, was released online as a tribute to the original. I was the director of that short. It was made for the sole reason that Fred promised the title at the end credits of the original film, which was later confirmed to be a joke. We took the story of the original and continued it 20 years later with survivor D.J. still roaming the desert and Indian caves in search of new victims. It was pretty cheesy and amateur, but full of heart and love for the original. This short film put me in contact with director Fred Olen Ray and we have since kept in touch.
Scalps remains one of my all-time favorite slasher films. The combination of the surreal imagery, gory deaths, creepy music and eerie location is more than enough to keep most fans interested. It’s always remained a bit of an underdog, but here’s hoping 30 years later it continues to build it’s cult audience.
Check back this month for an all-new interview with Fred Olen Ray about making Scalps.