Synopsis: A psychopathic plastic surgeon transforms a young accident victim into the spitting image of his missing daughter.
Stars: Robert Lansing, Judith Chapman, Arlen Dean Snyder, David Scarroll, Sandy Martin
Director: John Grissmer
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Most people will argue the yearly fee for being an Amazon Prime member is worth it because it pays for itself in the free shipping you receive throughout the year. While that is a nice perk, I find what really pays dividends are the deep dive films you can happen upon if you go hunting for a gem past the first fifty or so titles that are suggested for you on the Prime Video homepage. Even better, once the logarithm gets to know you and your tastes, it even starts to recommend some of these off-the-beaten path choices so that they come to you, rather than you having to spend the time exploring the nooks and crannies in the far ends of a genre list.
That’s how 1977’s Scalpel (aka False Face) first found its way into my watchlist and then into a late night viewing which turned my low expectations on its ear. The low-budget charmer was made for pennies ($400,000) but looks quite good and surprisingly has a lot going for it. It’s schlocky in parts and sleazy in others but it’s never boring or gratuitous to totally make you lurch for the remote. Even with its limitations where money is concerned, it manages to offer a few genuine moments of disbelief with its plot so while you may get a chuckle or two out of the drippy supporting performances and tacky, not good enough for community theater costumes, you’ll likely come away satisfied with this sharp shocker.
Respected Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing) is a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery, a model of modern medicine to his colleagues. However, behind the scenes he’s an egomaniacal nightmare who takes the “God complex” to an entirely new level. His wife mysteriously drowns and then his daughter Heather (Judith Chapman) suspiciously vanishes after her boyfriend inexplicably drowns in the family pool…all peculiar coincidences that leave him one of the only family members at the reading of the will for his late father-in-law. Too bad for him, Heather’s grandfather left her his entire estate and with her missing but not dead no one is getting any richer now that he’s gone.
Out one night drunkenly commiserating with his equally no-good brother-in-law (Arlen Dean Snyder), they find a half-naked girl in the street, the victim of a brutal beating that has left her face broken and bloodied. As he is bringing the brutalized woman in to his practice, writer/director John Grissmer’s script has Reynolds coming up with a devious plot: He can reconstruct her shattered face in the likeness of his missing daughter, hoping eventually to convince her to go in with him on cheating the trust out of the five million dollars left to his child. Turns out, the woman (also played by Chapman) doesn’t need much convincing as she loves her new face and fancy living. Reynolds treats her better than any man ever has and all she has to do is pretend to be a girl everyone adored? Piece of cake. That is, until the real Heather returns.
Filmed on location in Georgia and largely in an old antebellum mansion that gives the movie a nice gothic atmosphere, Scalpel scoots along nicely by laying everything it does just a little thicker than it needs to. The accents are all Southern by way of Foghorn Leghorn, the make-up on the women is theatrical in the politest of terms, and the humor is darkly comic. Yet the performances never boil over the top nor rise to a frenzy as many at this level were known to do. Lansing is greatly restrained as one truly evil man, the more we learn about him and his emotional manipulation the more we hate him. You know the phrase, “He’d sell his mother for a dollar?” He’d ask for less and still claim he got a bad deal. The film belongs to Chapman though, playing two sides of a deceptively difficult coin. One moment she’s the daughter that’s admired by her father and the next she’s the double who eventually becomes romantically linked to her creator…yet both roles are distinct in subtle ways. A lesser actress would attempt to make the shifts huge so we could always tell the two apart, the film has both Heathers often looking strikingly similar so that it’s only in the way they carry themselves or how they interact with Reynolds that tip us off who they really are.
You might guess the film would get a little problematic if you analyze that Reynolds becomes intimate with a woman he has transformed into looking like his offspring, and you’d be right. That’s where the film finds another bit of its grimy horror to exploit. Blessedly, this angle is only introduced almost as an afterthought because Grissmer has some bigger plot holes he needs to address that don’t always get filled in. The ending is, frankly, a little wacky and not up to the level of the previous 80 minutes but the final zinger is a neat reward as a way of bidding us farewell. Though rated PG (with the violence, blood, sexual situations, and brief nudity, this is easily an R by today’s standards) this might not be in the vein of traditional horror but works on a level just above 70s drive-in movies where this was perhaps too slow-paced for that raucous crowd. Filmed beautifully by future Oscar nominee Edward Lachman (Erin Brockovich, Wonderstruck, Carol), Scalpel isn’t going to quench your hunger for pure horror but will fill your cup if you’re searching for a diamond in the rough.