By: ALEX DELLER
Starring Judith Chapman, Robert Lansing, Arlen Dean Snyder
Directed by John Grissmer
Written by John Grissmer and Joseph Weintraub
The first – and also penultimate – directorial stint for John Grissmer is a real 70s oddity: a handsome if simply-shot piece of work that falls somewhere between twisted thriller, awkward horror and woozy Southern Gothic. SCALPEL’s set-up is intriguing, with TV veteran Robert Lansing (Star Trek, The Twilight Zone etc.) playing arrogant, perma-tanned plastic surgeon Phillip Reynolds, whose delicate surgeon’s hands have also dabbled in cold-blooded murder. Swizzed out of an inheritance by his father-in-law (could be worse – the old coot left his only son a large, slobbery dog), Lansing lights upon a scheme to nab the $5 million left to his missing daughter Heather (Judith Chapman) when he finds an unconscious dancer who’s had her faced mulched by a brutish nightclub thug.
The ploy? Why, greasy Dr. Phil’s going to put his surgical skills to work and reconstruct the poor dancer’s face using his darling Heather as a muse. After a lengthy bout of gristle clamping and bone-shaving Jane Doe (Judith Chapman, again) begins to recover, and when the bandages fall away we see that Dr Phil has keener plastic surgery chops than many a modern-day practitioner. All that’s left – bar some deeply inappropriate canoodling with saviour/corruptor/de facto daddio Dr Reynolds – is for Jane to go all Eliza Doolittle, adopting the voice and mannerisms (if not the piano-playing skill) of her errant doppelgänger so she can sign on the dotted line for all that lovely loot. But, of course, things are never that simple, and it’s not long before the situation goes very pear-shaped indeed…
As Grissmer admits, SCALPEL is a bit of a funny one, and distributors had a right old time trying to shill it back in the late 70s. Indeed, you can see it being too perverse for those seeking vanilla thrills, falling flat for die-hard gorehounds and lacking the lyrical depth to function as either an EYES WITHOUT A FACE/THE SKIN I LIVE IN meditation on identity or a high art cinematic counterpart to the work Flannery O’Connor. Still, the professional construction belies the crew’s lack of experience, and the cast of TV regulars tackles the oddball storyline with generous gusto. The increasingly frayed Lansing is particularly fun to watch as his wide, shark-like grin threatens to crack his face in two, while Chapman is by turns elfin, spooky and charming as she shifts from stately Southern belle to hard-edged street urchin with just a jut of her chin or a sideways tilt of the head.
The film also benefits from a bitter, snarky sense of humour and a deep sense of curdled strangeness that seems to have bubbled up from its swamp Georgia setting. This all works to render it engaging and thoroughly enjoyable, while also seeding a strange and off-kilter worldview that would come to the fore with Grissmer’s belated and ill-starred follow-up – the bloodily OTT Thanksgiving slasher Blood Rage.