Watching a Fred Olen Ray film is like popping happy pills: They’re not exactly healthy for your brain, but they make you laugh anyway.
Indians. They’re best left alone. They have peaceful ways, but if you hassle them, you’re in for some real trouble. History has taught us that. Even from beyond the grave they can come back for revenge. And taking up residence in the eternal spirit world, gives them great powers. Movies have taught us that. And Fred Olen Ray made one about it.
If you want a fine example of ‘bare bones (horror) film-making’, ‘Scalps’ is just as fine as any example. Not that it’s a fine film, mind you. Everything about it, is rudimentary. Like if it was made by a brute. It looks like the editing was done with an axe, first having the film chopped to pieces and then glued together with Pattex super-glue. The camera work is limited to pointing it where the actor is when he speaks his lines (or when he does something). The audio work was limited to making sure it was at least recorded. This makes up for background noises being very inconsistent during simple conversations, when the camera switches angles. In an attempt to cover up the sloppy sound, you get many scenes where the musical score continues to play throughout several scenes where it doesn’t even belong. While this becomes ridiculous too often, the score itself does have its moments. It’s minimalistic and electronic, and at times it manages to enhance the desert landscapes with an ominous atmosphere.
Essentially, ‘Scalps’ plays out like mixing an ordinary slasher flick with an ‘Evil Dead’-ish ‘vengeful spirits’-theme, set in a desert à la ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (at one point it even seems Fred copied the exact same ‘passing through a tunnel with a car’-scene from the first ‘Evil Dead’). A group of young archaeologists set out to excavate an Indian burial ground. We all know you should stay away from such sites when you’re starring in a horror movie. One directed by Fred Olen Ray, no less, so thankfully that also means naked boobs and gore… The boobs at display are fine, the attempted rape-scene too (yes, the spirits they have awakened are not only angry, but also horny). The gore at display, while being raw and not of a high technical standard, is pretty cool too (heads being decapitated & scalped, throats being cut,…). It’s bloody but very basic, yet not without charm. You can include not-so-effective ‘possessed’ make-up effects in the gamma, and one, incredibly puzzling appearance of a ghostly demon dude with an animatronic lion’s head. A great source of incomprehensible laughter, but afterwards I learned that this was test-footage Fred never intended to edit into the movie. His producers decided otherwise. Another highlight in the SFX department is the exploding ghostly Indian head. Its evil, floating influence is felt & seen numerous times throughout the movie (not sure if that was intended either), but at one point it makes the stupid mistake to appear amidst a crispy campfire. ‘Boom!’, it goes. Bye bye, ghostly Indian head. Good stuff.
The film’s pace is pretty damn slow; obviously, as we’re dealing with an early 80′s slasher here. The performances aren’t very convincing, as to be expected, but the young cast does manage to say things with a straight face. And that in itself is an accomplishment, as most of the dialogues are clichéd-driven, moronic drap. However, one girl manages to utter the most memorable line from the whole film: “Defiling the graves of the dead will only anger their souls!”. Upon hearing it, it spontaneously evokes the viewer’s urge to repeat it with a more firm, low-pitched, threatening voice. I watched this movie with friends, and so we did. Hilarity ensued.
I think that sums up about everything there is to say about Fred Olen Ray‘s ‘Scalps’. He does try to make a serious-toned supernatural slasher, but delivers an inept piece of bare bones film-making. It’s notable for the rudimentary gore effects and the occasionally atmospheric soundtrack. But, as so it goes with most of his other 80′s horror/sci-fi outings, it’s advisable to watch it with friends. That way you can have more fun with the ‘bad movie qualities’ it has. Make this film better, and share the laughter. And then go right ahead and watch his honest-to-god ‘Alien’ cash-in ‘Deep Space’ too. By then (1988), Fred had already learned to pick up the pace of a film, understood that his films needed more slimy tentacles & grotesque monster action and very well gained the budgetary means to hire The Great Charles Napier (“I’ve got a mouth that can open sideways too!”) to spear-head the cast. It’s the one film that proudly managed to put him on my B-movie map in my early days. If you really need to see one Fred Olen Ray film in your life, then watch ‘Deep Space’.
Trailer on YouTube.