Regular visitors to F This Movie! know that the 1987 slasher Blood Rage holds a special place in my heart for being a slasher movie unlike any other. It has a lunatic premise, follows no real set of rules, features wildly inconsistent acting, but also gross and impressive gore effects and is a ton of fun. It's the kind of special horror movie one hopes to stumble upon when sifting through the dozens of undiscovered or underseen entries the genre has to offer. What it doesn't have is remarkable direction. The movie feels quick and cheap and crude, probably because it is all of those things, and I have never come away from it thinking that director John Grissmer did much more than service the wacky material. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally saw his first movie Scalpel and discovered a film that's not only well-directed, but genuinely quite good.
With only Blood Rage as a reference point for John Grissmer's work, I was expecting something trashy and exploitative from Scalpel, potentially even cruder than his (decidedly crude) follow-up. Instead, Scalpel is fairly understated, more of a psychological thriller than a visceral horror movie. While the doubling effects used to convince us that Judith Chapman is playing two characters are sometimes clunky and obvious, there are a handful of inspired sequences and shots, too, that are more sophisticated than what we expect from a film of this pedigree (my favorite of which finds on Chapman listening in on a conversation with both characters in plain view of the camera). The premise lends itself to being total trash, and Grissmer doesn't shy away from some of the ickier aspects of the story -- to put it gently, this might make a great double bill with Julie Darling. There are hints of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face in terms of the father attempting to reconstruct the daughter's face, but Scalpel is less stylized and effectively creepy (the comparison is unfair, of course, because Eyes is pretty much a masterpiece). Although the execution is a little flat, there are a number of twists that take the movie into more ridiculous and lurid territory, bolstered by the performance by Robert Lansing, who is never less than self-aware as a guy who starts out as a scheming sleaze and only gets worse as the movie goes on.
Also included are new interviews with Grissmer (as well as an optional director's introduction), star Judith Chapman and cinematographer Lachman, who goes into more detail about his intentions with the film's color grading. Historian Richard Harland Smith contributes a good audio commentary, while a trailer and gallery of production and promotional stills round out a solid collection of bonus features.
Between Blood Rage and now Scalpel, John Grissmer is now two for two as far as I'm concerned, albeit in totally different ways and with two totally different types of movies. This was every bit the pleasant surprise that Blood Rage was when I saw it, even though it's less goofy fun and much more of an honest to god "movie" movie. Arrow's restoration is more or less flawless, rescuing yet another lost movie from obscurity and hopefully exposing it to a whole new audience. This is the kind of film I love to discover courtesy of these cult and niche labels: a little hidden gem of weirdness that doesn't subscribe to convention. The more movies I see, the more I appreciate movies like Scalpel.
Blu-ray release date: February 27, 2018
LCPM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)
Blu-ray Bonus Features:
Alternate Arrow graded version
Commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith
Interview with director John Grissmer
Interview with star Judith Chapman
Interview with cinematographer Edward Lachman