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  • nickkarner

Scalpel (1977)

Until computers or aliens begin penning screenplays, the origins and details of a film’s plotline can be traced back to a writer’s imagination; mixed with some personal experience. There are moments when someone utters a bit of dialogue, a specific event takes place; perhaps a location is visited or a type of food is consumed. These bits can provide a trigger for anyone who’s had a similar life experience. My daughter often points out the mundane details of her own life in conjunction with whatever candy-colored, sugar rush kids program she’s watching at any given moment. Does that character have cousins? So does she! Wow! That flying cat likes chicken! My God, it’s like they’re reading her mind! For me, my life experiences lean a bit more into the realm of adulthood, so when successful and secretly homicidal plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing, The Equalizer, Empire of the Ants) mentions how he and his colleagues “have the biggest egos outside of neurosurgeons,” I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve had to go under the knife a few times and be operated on by a couple of neurosurgeons, and it got back to me that while brilliant, they're also very much the alphas in the room.

Writer/Director John Grissmer only directed two films, preferring to work as a novelist rather than a filmmaker. But what a small but lasting legacy to leave behind! 1987’s Blood Rage is a rare Thanksgiving-themed slasher film which is a tad goofy but has a truly dark sensibility. Made exactly ten years prior, his production of mystery-thriller Scalpel (1977) would place a Southern Gothic twist onto a story of deception, murder, double crosses, and a total lack of moralizing.

Shot by the wildly talented Edward Lachman (two-time Oscar nominee and Todd Haynes’ regular cinematographer), the film is awash in yellows and creams, perfect for the seedy depiction of a deeply dysfunctional and morally bankrupt Southern family. The film is deliciously mean-spirited and revels in how much its characters have little to no regard for anyone’s lives but their own. When the patriarch of the famed Thorndike dynasty passes away, the tone of his will is not that of a passive, kindly old Southerner, but rather a vindictive prick who gets a sick kick from having the last laugh on his grasping, groping relatives. To his disappointment of a son, perennial public office also-ran Bradley (Arlen Dean Snyder, Heartbreak Ridge), he bequeaths a big puppy. Bradley is a party boy all the way and inquires: “Why do funerals have to be so damn depressing?” His son-in-law Phillip, he bequeaths...nada. His beloved, practically perfect in every way granddaughter Heather (Judith Chapman, future Y&R soap star), a whopping 5 million dollars. Eventually Phillip has a Zero Mostel moment and says to himself: “Wow! I want that money!” Things, however, are complicated.

What makes Scalpel so unique is that the audience is shown very early on that Phillip has no problems dispatching those who get in his way, and yet thanks to the writing and Lansing’s excellent, contained performance, he remains a fascinating enigma. He witnessed his daughter Heather getting hot and heavy with a young man one evening, so what does a protective father do? Give the boy a stern but understanding talking to? Perhaps warn his daughter of the dangers of pre-marital sex? Nah! He ambushes the poor guy in his car, injects him Dexter-style, pours alcohol all over him and dumps him in a pond to drown. Unfortunately, Heather bears witness to that last bit and runs off. Over a year later, she’s completely disappeared and no one has any idea where she is.

After an evening of drinking and celebrating the death of Thorndike, Phillip and Bradley happen to pass by a strip joint, where a severely beaten stripper collapses into the street. We’re never told why this happened, but we’re shown a massive club owner smashing her face against a brick wall repeatedly. Maybe she wasn’t pushing those specialty cocktails enough. Phillip rushes her to the hospital and begins calling the police, but stops when he sees Heather’s picture. As he stated in the beginning, his kind are regarded as “20th Century alchemists” and they turn “the maimed and the deformed into the desirable.” You can see the wheels turning in his head. It’s not immediate, but a plan is beginning to take shape. The unidentified woman’s “nose is crushed, left cheek pushed in, jaw broken in three, maybe four places,” so she’ll need a complete facial reconstruction. As always, some of my favorite bits in movies are the depictions of professionals at work. The way Dr. Reynolds shaves a fake nose to just the right specification and how he peels skin to graft onto her face is fascinating. Finally, he fakes her hospital release and takes her back to his home to recover.

Jane Doe, as she comes to be known, is something of a cipher. It’s never revealed exactly who she is nor whether she’s suffering from amnesia. She’s a smart cookie though, remarking to Phillip, “When you look at me, it’s downright creepy.” He’s fortunate that, after some coaxing, she’s willing to go along with his scheme to pass her off as his missing daughter, Heather. “I have a choice?” she asks. It’s a very natural response and one that indicates that she really doesn’t, since his decision to transform her into the spitting image of his daughter has essentially trapped her in a near-impossible situation. She could walk away, sure, but when he asks if “two-and-a-half million dollars” will be an “incentive,” she changes her tune.

There’s a directness to the film that’s absolutely refreshing. It doesn’t pussy-foot around things and milk the running time by wasting a moment. They get right to work, with Lansing treating her almost like an automaton by showing her picture after picture and repeating the single word: “Identify.” He provides Jane with tape recordings so she can master Heather’s cadence. He’s even rather gentle and tender as he removes her bandages. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a man who has some basic humanity but chooses to ignore it. In a chilling scene accompanied by his ironically dour description of his late wife’s “accident,” we see a woman struggling in a river while he slowly paddles past her, absolutely indifferent to her perilous situation. This film has icicles running through its veins.

With the exception of Jane being unable to play the piano, everything seems to be in order and she manages to charm everyone into believing she’s the genuine article at a welcome home party attended by all of her garish and materialistic family members. As far as filmmaking know-how goes, there’s excellent craftsmanship going on as the camera pans away from a still bruised Jane into the heavily-populated party. If there’s one thing I love, it’s a clever transition. Jane is nervous, but very convincing, only hesitating a few times on certain people’s names. The film’s intrigue is so compelling that one experiences genuine panic when Uncle Bradley requests a performance from piano prodigy Heather. It’s a real “oh shit!” moment. It also doesn’t quite play out as you expect. Phillip leaves her twisting in the wind as she plunks a bit out on the keys before swooping in and explaining it away as the result of a previous shock. It works and they end up getting away with it as “Heather” signs the necessary paperwork and “makes a gift to her daddy.” Lansing is fabulously sleazy as he half-heartedly tries to dissuade her from such a generous gesture. As they leave the lawyer’s office, they start to skip down the hall. It’s adorable. Later, in what we have to accept is somehow OK, even though it’s supremely icky, the two end up sleeping together. Remember, she’s the spitting image of his daughter, even though she’s not.

After a celebratory trip to an amusement park, they’re ambushed at home by Uncle Bradley, who insists on “Heather” playing for him. It all seems rather innocent, until he starts slamming her hands against the keys and shouts “whoever you are.” Obviously, he knows something’s amiss. Phillip manhandles Bradley, whose heart seizes and he collapses to the floor. His pills are snatched up and Phillip and Jane watch him die. In a fabulous scene of black comedy, Bradley, who hated depressing funerals, insisted that his funeral be an absolute blast, so cue up the band. The various members of the family get drunk as skunks while a ragtime bands busts out that old favorite, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Phillip delivers the final eulogy and twists the knife by mentioning that before he died, Bradley was “playing his heart out at our piano.” In the distance, the real Heather looks on, but doesn’t come forward.

Phillip and Jane arrive home and Heather has prepared a sumptuous meal for the three of them. It’s a weird, creepy scene that has an off-putting, almost dreamlike quality. Judith Chapman’s performances as both Heather and Jane are quietly astonishing. There’s just enough difference in their personalities, speech patterns, and body movement that you truly believe they’re two people. The split screen is also expertly accomplished. Heather refuses to explain her sudden reappearance and the film keeps you off-balance by never allowing either Phillip or Heather to reveal how much they know or don’t know. Heather acknowledges that Jane certainly looks like her, but appears to have no knowledge of her grandfather’s death. She doesn’t even mention the simple fact that Phillip murdered her lover. She seems both cagey and relaxed at the same time. Equally cool as a cucumber, Phillip claims the inheritance went to a university, which she seems to buy. Heather conveniently decides that she’s not ready to face her family, so this at least has some plausibility for why it would only remain the trio in this Southern mansion. Jane is suspicious, claiming Heather is “funning us,” but as usual, Phillip has a plan.

Although he’s torn by guilt, he knows he can’t let Heather live, lest he lose all of that money. He hires a local bartender who works as a part-time assassin to eliminate Heather while he and Jane go for a swim. It’s an intense moment when the bartender shows up, asking Heather to lead him into the basement. He re-emerges a while later with blood on his hands. It’s a jaw-dropping moment...which is quickly upended when we find Heather safe and sound, sitting at the breakfast nook. The film immediately cuts to Jane, floating face down as Robert Cobert’s score plays ominous low chords. No wonder he was Dan Curtis’s favorite composer. But damnit all! This film once again is messing with you! Jane pops up and everything’s fine. Immediately though, a cop stops Phillip and Jane. She casually explains that she’s his daughter, but he stares at her as if she’s lost her mind. He claims she most certainly is not and the officer orders her to leave the car. In a fabulous bit of attempted deceit, Jane indicates that she switched with Heather. It makes absolute sense that she’d at least try to use this ruse since she’s essentially fucked. But guess what? The cop is the assassin and Jane is the target. Holy shit! Though a chase scene through the woods is poorly-staged, with the actors constantly tripping and falling over, the phony cop eventually catches her.

Heather is dropped off at the house by a mystery man after Phillip arrives. He finally shows his true colors, which happen to be that he has deep-seated incestual issues and that he killed her lover so he could have her all to himself. Then he tells Heather about Jane; that “I killed her for you.” It’s a very dark and intensely scary scene which just gets worse when he attempts to rape her. Out of nowhere, a figure smashes him over the head with a frying pan. Panning up, we discover Jane, now wearing the uniform of the fake cop. We don’t know how she got away, unless perhaps she paid him off, but we’ve got a triple-cross on our hands. Earlier, they’d had an uncomfortable conversation about the possibility of switching places, but Jane pointed out that it would only work until they got to the bedroom, then problems would ensue.

The head psychologist of the local nut house, Dr. Robert Dean (David Scarroll) arrives. We met him much earlier at the homecoming party for Heather, but it turns out that she’s been at the hospital this entire time. She had a nervous breakdown and had convinced herself that she’d hallucinated the death of her lover. Now, she knows the truth and wants revenge. It’s a great twist because now it’s clear that the doctor knew that Jane was an imposter the moment he met her. Heather and Jane’s revenge comes full-circle as Dr. Bob drugs Phillip up and they force him to have a psychotic break. They claim that “Jane” is an imaginary person Phillip’s conjured up and the film itself begins to break down, with Phillip seeing various hallucinations like an undead Bradley and getting force-fed various drugs and alcohol. Dr. Bob suggests a “restricted environment” on a permanent basis, effectively putting Phillip out of commission and allowing Heather to get all of the money for herself.

As they cart Phillip away, Jane says goodbye and although pleasant, Heather seems to regard her with some light disdain. She hitches a ride in the back of the hospital transport and has one last moment with Phillip, whom she thanks for restoring her face. She arrives at the airport, where she assumes the guise of “Heather” and picks up two-and-a-half million dollars in cash, packed up nicely in a suitcase of her favorite color, yellow. It’s an appropriate ending for a character who was basically forced into a dangerous and insane situation.

Marketed as a horror film, the film may contain a few horrific ideas, but it’s far from a straight-forward horror. Rather, it’s a potboiler of the highest order, full of malicious individuals who are only after money and power. Immaculately shot and acted with surgical precision, Scalpel is a great, but sadly semi-forgotten thriller which is finally being recognized for its many virtues.