Friday, August 21, 2015

Scalpel (1977)

... aka: Bisturí (Scalpel)
... aka: False Face
... aka: Perintö veitsenterällä (Heritage on a Razor's Edge)
... aka: Skalpell - Blutiges Spiegelbild (Scalpel - Bloody Reflection)

Directed by:
John Grissmer

Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing) is an esteemed plastic surgeon and murderous sociopath whose greed and perversity seem to know no bounds. Not only responsible for his own wife's drowning, he also killed his piano prodigy daughter's boyfriend after angrily stumbling upon the two of them having sex. In both instances he successfully staged the killings to look like accidental drownings in their backyard pond. After having caught a brief glimpse of the death of her lover, the daughter - Heather (Judith Chapman) - ran off and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Problems arise a year later when Phillip's rich father-in-law croaks and not only shafts Phillip in the will but also his own drunkard ne'er-do-well son Bradley (Arlen Dean Snyder); leaving Heather every penny of his 5 million dollar estate. Heather cannot be located, but Phillip stumbles upon a possible solution to his predicament in the form of a topless stripper who's just had her face smashed to a bloody pulp against a wall and happens to wander out in the street in front of his car.

Phillip takes the woman (also played by Chapman) back to his clinic and discovers she has no identity, no family and no home to go along with her disfigured- beyond-recognition face. Realizing he has a clean slate to work with, the doctor strikes up a bargain with the "Jane Doe" in his care: He'll reconstruct her face to look exactly like his missing daughter's if she'll impersonate her to make appearances at a few family functions and then claim the inheritance. Things go off without a hitch, aside from the duo having to bump off the weak-hearted brother-in-law after he becomes suspicious because the new "Heather" cannot play piano like the other one. As they wait to collect their money, the two become a little better acquainted in a very Freudian manner, but their entire plan is threatened when the real Heather finally returns home.

This plays out sort of like a demented version of Pygmalion, with an older male trying to turn a young woman from the other side of the tracks into a classier, sophisticated Southern belle, with a dash of Frankenstein and EYES WITHOUT A FACE thrown in. Added to that is a pervasive incest theme with the surgeon clearly having sexual designs on his own daughter. He kills his wife for her and eliminates her potential suitor in a jealous rage just so he has her all to himself. Taking things one step further into the realm of the uncomfortable, "Jane Doe" then becomes his flesh-and-blood way of actually acting out his lustful, unnatural feelings. When Heather finally comes back into the picture, Dr. Reynolds finds the real thing more irresistible than his creation; an urge that aids in his eventual downfall.

This is not a flashy movie in terms of photography, direction or visual style. That said, I'd personally rather watch a low-budget, low-key movie like this that has intelligent writing and good acting than a stylish, slick big budget movie with safe, soulless writing. One's enjoyment hinges a lot on whether they can accept an admittedly absurd premise but, if you can, there's a macabre sense of humor and lots of interesting subtext bubbling underneath the surface to enjoy. The director is also able to get good work from the entire cast, with Lansing giving a great performance as the arrogant, disturbed doctor, which he plays with just the right amount of restraint. The biggest surprise though is Chapman, who manages to create two different characters in a very subtle, believable way. I thought she looked familiar and then discovered she's the younger sister of expatriate Euro exploitation actress Patty Shepard, who starred in over a dozen horror flicks in the 70s and 80s. The two look a LOT alike but I'm afraid Patty never got a role as good as this one to play.

This was reportedly first released to theaters under the title False Face by a small distributor called United International Pictures. That release was so small I couldn't even find a poster for the film under that title. A year later it was acquired and given a wider release by AVCO Embassy under the new title Scalpel. Two years later, it made its TV debut on CBS and then there were numerous VHS releases after, most notable from Charter Entertainment and Embassy Home Video. Since then, it's faded into obscurity. There's no DVD release as of this writing.

There's a definite possibility this has been edited / cut. All of the current copies floating around have been sourced from the PG-rated AVCO theatrical version, while the first cut is said to have been rated R. You'll notice abrupt cuts in the sound and picture at times, especially the scene where the topless stripper (who is seen only from behind in this version) is manhandled. The credits also list several strip club "dancers" who are not seen in the Scalpel version of the film.

The music is by Bob Cobert, who was best known for scoring Dark Shadows and most of Dan Curtis' other TV shows and movies. Director Grissmer also went on to make the slasher flick Blood Rage, who was filmed in 1983 but not released until four years later under the title Nightmare at Shadow Woods.

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