Sunday, February 11, 2018

Cutting Remarks: A Look at Arrow's SCALPEL

In the Image Gallery of Arrow Video's new Blu-ray of John Grissmer's SCALPEL (1977), there is photographic evidence that the film's original distributor, unable to put the PG film across as a horror picture, tried to pass it off (under its original title FALSE FACE) as a comedy. To add water to the bonfire, they listed its top-billed stars thusly: "Robert Lansing (TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH), Judith Chapman (AS THE WORLD TURNS)." Never mind that, by 1977, TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH had been off the air for a full 10 years and that Lansing himself had not been associated with it since 1965. The best thing any movie of this period could have done to hurt their business would have been to proclaim, "Hold the presses, folks - we've got TV actors!"

What is interesting about all of this is that it points to what a unique film SCALPEL really is. There are considerable reasons to doubt that SCALPEL is a horror picture (as audio commentator Richard Harland Smith notes), and if you're going to call it a horror picture, you might just as well call it a comedy because some of it is darkly funny. The sad fact is, there is a commercial imperative to help a picture find its audience, and this one rolled the dice two different ways without packing them in. Horror movie or comedy, it's probably commercially preferable to telling people it's a Southern Gothic romantic thriller about a plastic surgeon (Lansing) who gives a disfigured stripper the face of his runaway daughter (Chapman) so that he can 1) collect a $5,000,000 inheritance and 2) sleep with her. All goes well with the incest fantasy until the real daughter returns home, suspicious about the present arrangement and much, much more attractive to Daddy. 

Though opportunity was ripe for visual quotations of Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Grissmer - whose background was in NY theater - was too grounded in drama and performance and supporting his narrative to get sidetracked in such cosmetic film school touches; it takes awhile before the viewer even cottons to the idea that there might be a VERTIGO hommage in here somewhere. What we get is a fairly compelling thriller, made on location in Atlanta by big city principals, which is made compelling by its even-handed direction, a surprisingly sumptuous if understated visual style (the cinematographic debut of Edward Lachman - LIGHT SLEEPER, THE LIMEY, I'M NOT THERE), and the utterly surprising performances of Lansing and Chapman, not to mention a bevy of local talent obviously having the time of their lives. Lansing seems to play his mad surgeon in an understated way, but he can also be quite bold; he comes across, most of all, as a real guy - warm, funny, dedicated, talented - whose selfishness is the key to his chilling sociopathology. (As he relates the story of his wife's tragic accidental death by drowning, we cutaway to a shot of a woman about to drown in a lake, as Lansing blithely circles her cries in a paddleboat.) It's not much of a surprise when we learn from the supplements that Lansing considered his work here as probably the best performance he ever gave. Chapman's two characters are essentially the same girl - as she would be had she been born without advantages, and with every possible social advantage. Though the film isn't a comedy, what bonds these two characters, these three performances, is a sly shared sense of humor - the kind sometimes observed between people who share deep personal secrets, as indeed they all do.

Arrow's generously packed Blu-ray disc offers two different 2K restorations of the 1.85:1 film from its best surviving source material, a 35mm color reversal internegative. There is the Arrow version, which gives us the film as it was preserved on the internegative, which the director has approved; and then there is the Lachman version, which was tweaked by the film's director of photography to reflect the color adjustments he made in the original release prints, which emphasize the citrus colors of the palette to evoke a more humid, Southern atmosphere. Taken together, the two versions provide the viewer with an unexpected lesson in how a film's mood and atmosphere can be adjusted in post-production, and Arrow is to be commended for welcoming such a discussion. Interview featurettes with Grissmer, Chapman (the younger sister of Spanish horror film starlet Patty Shepard!), and Lachman are also included, as well as the good companionship of a typically well-researched Richard Harland Smith commentary. His talk not only benefits from a further interview with Grissmer, but from his own past jobs as a theater actor and hospital attendant. When we are shown Jane Doe in her hospital bed, Smith tells us why its protective rails would never pass code today - and its such welcome jolts of the real world that lend resonance to his later stories about the real Robert Lansing, the one who was known to some of his old acting buddies. The first pressing is accompanied by an exclusive illustrated booklet featuring substantial writing about the film by Bill Ackerman and David Konow. 

In short, this disc does honor to a deserving, modest, well-crafted film that has certainly waited long enough for it.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

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