Fred Olen Ray has a special place in my heart along with many other filmmakers who share a love for low budget cinema (still saving a blog entry for my precious Albert Pyun). Olen Ray directed, produced, and wrote such gems as Alienator, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Alien Dead, Biohazard, and one of my ultimate favourites, Scalps. Decapitation, a spooky lion mask, and a creepy ghost face in a cave all grace the screen before the movie’s title appears and it just gets better from that point on.
Scalps was released in 1983 and tells the story of archaeology students dressed in 80s flannel attire (so much flannel) who go to an Indian burial ground in the California desert for a dig when they unwittingly release an evil spirit that initiates their unforeseen doom! One of the girls sees the spooky face that continues to appear in fire and in a bowl filled with blood throughout the movie. She’s too scared to dig and attempts to convince her friends that they should leave but they just think she’s paranoid and over-reacting. Even being warned by the local old drunk at the gas station wasn’t enough to ward them off.
I admire many elements of low budget 80s films because I can see and appreciate the genuine effort that was put into the project with what they had to work with. It brings me joy knowing horror was celebrated even with constrained budgets and it just takes me back to that special time, that incredible decade of my youth. I like to wonder when watching these types of movies if the shoddy production was intentional or due to lack of experience, but either way, I’m always pleased with the results of continuity errors.
So naturally, one of my favourite aspects about Scalps is the audio… ADR is all over the place! The one used for scenes of them hiking in the desert is just filled with eerie melodies but you can clearly see their mouths moving with no sound coming through. Not really sure why they decided to not record the student’s gasps and grunts but okay. Then there’s the ADR used for the gas station scene; it was so incredibly poorly done because the sound of the traffic on the road is offensively loud!
Then there’s the lighting, or lack of lighting I should say. I’m assuming they didn’t have any and couldn’t shoot the wide night scenes as it is clearly apparent they were shot at dusk and added a filter in post to make it look like it was night time. The sound and lighting might suck (or rule depending how you look at it) but the special effects are pretty gnarly! The throat slashing was very well done and the scalping is pretty decent, bringing out some Maniac vibes.
Scalps definitely has some amusing situations going on. Like a scene where the students are sitting around the campfire telling scalping stories, and one of the couples can’t handle it so they decide to take a walk, in the middle of nowhere, at night, in the desert, where NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN. There they stumble upon another campsite with ritualistic drums and chanting playing where we see the spooky floating face appear in the fire and then it just fucking explodes! Yeah I’ll take the scalping convo instead!
Scalps is one of my prized VHS tapes because my copy is the cover of the rotten skeleton wearing a lovely red shirt with a rat walking around its face. I personally hate camping, so I relate to the girl that sleeps in the station wagon. I wouldn’t be caught dead in this movie but I suppose the lesson in Scalps is don’t rape your girlfriend or else you’ll get scalped and/or morph into a murderous caveman! God bless you Fred, not only for being a filmmaker but also a former wrestler!