There are many Horror films that take on topics and make them into something rather frightening. You have the idea of going away to summer camp and being slaughtered in 1983’s Sleepaway Camp, a killer Santa Claus in 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, or being hunted down by an angry miner on Valentine’s Day in 1981’s My Bloody Valentine. While some of these ideas may be offensive to some more than others outside the realm of Horror viewership, perhaps one of the oddest Horror film themes that came out of the ‘80s was with Scalps.
A product of prolific low budget Horror Filmmaker Fred Olen Ray (who did such other fan favorites including 1980’s Alien Dead and 1988’s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), Scalps is as micro-budget as they come… an estimated $15,000. Part of the appeal to some, believe it or not, it was actually granted a limited theatrical release in December of 1983 through 21st Century Film Corporation (a company which actually put out the English dub Luci Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, among other films). Now 40 years old, Scalps still remains a cult classic among the truest Horror fans, and is worth looking back at a little further.
Now, with a name like Scalps, and the quite morbid theatrical poster of a Native American holding a scalp in one hand and a bloody tomahawk in the other, you are bound to attract attention. Something that is probably far more offensive in the present-day culture, let it be known, Scalps is not meant to be taken seriously as anything culturally accurate. That in mind, the story follows six archeology students who set out to dig in the California desert. Rather naive, they are warned by a professor to use caution, but of course ignore him. Naturally, they end up digging around in an Indian burial ground for artifacts, and unleash the spirit of Black Claw. From here the supernatural force possesses one of the group members, thus begins to kill each off in a rather gruesome fashion.
A pretty standard concept for a b-rated Slasher film, however with a twist, where Scalps stands out is its oddly unsettling atmosphere. Dark, ominous, and even feeling psychedelic at times, if you allow yourself, you cannot help but find it a bit creepy. As mentioned, with an extremely low budget project, it is really only for a niche audience to appreciate.
Which leads to the controversy behind the film. Allegedly, it has either been heavily censored or banned in many places around the world through the years. So, these factors might make some viewers even more curious. If you are one of those, it was put out on DVD back in 2004 through Retromedia Entertainment in honor of the 20th anniversary, but honestly, the imagery is very poorly transferred, and thus challenging to watch. From here Scalps made its way to Blu-ray (also via Olen Ray’s Retromedia) in 2016, but only limited to 2,000 copies. The Blu-ray, probably the best way to view it, is in the film’s uncut format, transferred in 2K from the 35mm negative. Furthermore, you can probably also find it streaming somewhere with the mass of services out there today.
So, is Scalps a Horror classic? No, but it is a film that deep-rooted fans of the genre should check out at least once. It is from a time in Horror history where low budget filmmaking could still hang with the big boys thanks to video stores and distribution companies willing to offer theatrical releases, even if limited. This in itself makes Scalps worth discussing as it turns 40 years old.