John Grissmer’s Scalpel is a crazy quilt of literary and cinematic references, but it can best be situated within a lineage of dreamy, overheated thrillers that ranges from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to De Palma’s Obsession and Sisters. Like those films, Scalpel is replete with disturbing undercurrents of psychosexual dysfunction and is largely preoccupied with notions of personality transference and what might be termed “identity sculpting”—the process by which a male authority figure, suffering from latent (at the very least) sadomasochistic tendencies, forces a disadvantaged woman to assume the identity of another, with whom he has developed an unhealthy attachment.
The film literalizes this concept by centering on plastic surgeon Philip Reynolds (Robert Lansing), a man with the professional skills necessary to embody a new identity in the flesh. Grissmer neatly establishes Philip’s arrogance and cynical humor right off the bat with a pep talk he gives his staff about his profession’s vaunted reputation, which Philip finds perfectly natural and wholly warranted. Over the course of Scalpel‘s first act, he’ll be revealed as a schemer and multiple murderer with a voyeuristic, incestuous fixation on his daughter, Heather (Judith Chapman). Turns out that Heather fled home when she witnessed her father drowning her then-beau in the backyard fishpond, and now an encounter with a brutally disfigured stripper gives Philip ideas about how to collect on his missing daughter’s sizeable inheritance.
With its authentically detailed depiction of medical procedures, as well as its eerie images of the bandage-swathed features of Jane Doe (also Chapman), Scalpel initially bears a passing resemblance to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. But Scalpel‘s working title was in fact False Face, and, if nothing else, that name better represents the aura of manipulation and deception that permeates the film. Its ambience of moral decay and degradation owes as much to Tennessee Williams as it does Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the authors who wrote the screenplay for Franju’s film and whose 1954 crime novel The Living and the Dead served as the basis for Vertigo.
The twisted, twisty storyline begins to double back on itself with the reappearance of Heather, who turns up at the funeral for her uncle, Bradley (Arlen Dean Snyder), standing atop an ironically apposite funerary monument. Heather and Jane soon face off over possession of Philip, trading socially and sexually barbed badinage, in a comedy of manners where nobody really has any. For sequences that include both Heather and Jane in the same shot, Grissmer makes clever use of body doubles as well as split-screen optical effects, albeit in a less flamboyant fashion than De Palma’s Sisters.
The final act piles on the red herrings, psych-outs, and sight gags (one of the funniest involves Philip’s lakeside reading material). In keeping with its sizeable debt to the Southern gothic tradition, the film ultimately turns to fraught psychodrama, akin to that of Suddenly, Last Summer, except that it’s mostly played for mordant laughs. Grissmer resolves the situation of his mortifying ménage a trois in a manner that hews closer to the morally tidy resolutions of classical Hollywood cinema, where characters tend to receive their just deserts, than to De Palma’s penchant for emphasizing the mental collapse of the protagonist at the end of films like Sisters. But taken as a contraption for the elicitation of thrills, akin to the roller coaster Philip and Jane are seen riding in one sequence, Scalpel is clearly a slice above.
Arrow Video allows viewers to choose between a conventionally color-graded version of Scalpel and one—supervised by cinematographer Edward Lachman—that’s almost overpowered by a thick sheen of jaundiced yellows, intended to bring out the sultry Southern ambience of John Grissmer’s film. It’s certainly a plus to have both versions available for comparison and contrast. Either way, the image quality is vibrant, richly detailed, and even carries some depth. The PCM mono mix is clean and clear, if not overly robust, and it does justice to Robert Cobert’s often exquisitely eerie score.
Film historian Richard Harland Smith contributes an engaging and information-packed audio commentary. He’s particularly enlightening on the picaresque careers of the secondary performers, who were mostly drawn from regional theatrical troupes. Smith also makes intriguing comparisons between Scalpel and its far-flung literary and cinematic predecessors, which range from the myth of Pygmalion and the novels of Josephine Tey to classical Hollywood melodramas like A Stolen Life. Extras also include a 30-second introduction by (as well as a longer on-camera interview with) Grissmer, who talks about his earlier film The Bride, the casting process and shooting locations for Scalpel, working with Dark Shadows composer Robert Cobert, and the film’s beleaguered release history. Actress Judith Chapman discusses how her Southern heritage informed her role, making subtle behavioral distinctions between Jane Doe and Heather, and shares some funny anecdotes about location shooting. Lachman goes over his earlier career, outlines the techniques he used to give Scalpel its distinctively Southern gothic color palette, and delivers a paean to the art of film restoration. Lastly, the illustrated booklet (limited to the first pressing only) contains a detailed essay from Bill Ackerman on the film’s production history, and an article by David Konow reprinted from Fangoria that covers some of the same ground.
As a slice of sordid Southern gothic nastiness, shot through with a vein of mordant black humor, Scalpel is a cut above.