Retro Review: ‘Scalps’

During the 1980’s and 1990’s writer/director/producer Fred Olen Ray made a name for himself churning out cheap horror and sci-fi flicks. Given this was an era when he horror content could find video distribution one could always turn some kind of profit. In 1983, he made Scalps, one of his most famous movie solely because all it required was “six kids, a station wagon, and a tent”. He used an old connection to get Kirk Alyn to be the singular name actor and set out to make this low budget horror flick.

Despite the warnings of their mentor Professor Machen, a group of six college students head out to the desert on an archeological dig. This leads them to an ancient and supernaturally charged Indian burial mound, despite the warnings of the traditional horror movie old guy at the service station. To the surprise of nobody watching, these kids awaken the entity, Black Claw who possess one of the group members. Under the power of this spirit he hunts down and kills the others making sure to claim their scalps as his trophies.

In the opening few seconds of Scalps you know the kind of cheap exploitation movie it aspires to be when a monstrous being decapitates someone. It is both incredibly violent and pretty hilarious s the now headless man scrambles his hands around looking for his now-missing noggin. But do not let this get you too excited as the rest of the first act is dominated by the characters talking while ominous music incessantly plays. Mind you little of this conversation provides exposition or character development it mainly just pads for time but at least said ominous music of the flick is quite good. This will make you thank your lucky stars once things get going. Mind you the movie is still a mess and inept on a technical level because that is who Fred Olen Ray is as a filmmaker, but it is still surprisingly entertaining. There is something slightly unnerving about Scalps that sticks with people even after the movie is over. The odd combination of rough editing, day-for-night shooting, desolate landscape and eerie score lends itself to an end product which is oddly haunting and memorable. While a killer stalking around with a rubber mask may not sound like much there is a bit of lightning-in-a-bottle magic to it.

After a brief theatrical run, Scalps found its rightful place among the other lurid horror movies on video store shelves. Sadly, the flick’s distributor trimmed several minutes out in order to fits as a double feature along with another low budget horror movie The Slayer. Thanks to Ray’s status among cult film fans and a trendsetter in indie filmmaking it is far better remembered than many of the other films it ranked alongside.