SCALPS (1983) — Limited Edition Blu-ray Review

Scalps is now available on Blu-ray in a limited edition of 2000 units from Retromedia.

In the early 80s, director Fred Olen Ray acquired a small amount of financing and set about shooting a $15,000 indie horror picture. The film was shot on 16mm and eventually found theatrical distribution, though the distributor had final cut and created something different from Ray’s original vision, not only censoring the film’s violence but also editing it in unintended ways.

Ray would go on to become a low-budget maestro, directing and producing many sci-fi and horror films known for being cheesy or sleazy, but Scalps, one of his earliest efforts, plays the horror pretty straight.

Ray set out to create a claustrophobic tone, and succeeded. Thanks to its remote setting and relentlessly moody score, the film is known for a sense of dread. It bears some resemblance to The Hills Have Eyes, with its grimy 16mm visual aesthetic and urbanite characters stranded and stalked in a remote desert area.

At the behest of their anthropology professor, a group of students heads out to a remote location known for its Native American history with the intention of digging for artifacts, but in doing so they anger the spirit of an evil shaman that haunts the area.

For a low budget feature, the film is effectively unsettling — smaller weird occurrences give way to the rhythmic sound of drums filling the night air. Then one of their number becomes possessed by the ancient evil spirit, putting all at risk in good old-fashioned slasher fashion.

The film does have its share of problems, particularly when viewed through modern eyes. The scary portrayal of Indians is certainly exploitative in a way, and there’s also a rape sequence that could just have well been left out or handled differently (Ray agrees, and mentions regretting it in the commentary). It also has the hallmarks of a low budget production — out of focus shots, poor sound quality, some stilted dialogue, and the like.

Still, as a fan of 16mm I had a lot of fun with this one and was much more charmed than offended by its brand of low-budget horror.

The Package

Scalps arrives on Blu-ray from director Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia label in a limited edition of 2000 units. Collectors should note that it is not individually numbered or signed like some of Fred’s previous limited edition releases have been.

The film, which was subject to a great deal of censorship at the hands of its original distributor, has extensively restored to the best extent possible. As Ray explains in the commentary, the original film elements are lost — probably forever. So most of the film’s scenes of violence are reinserted using lower quality video sources.

While that sounds pretty bad, the effect is actually quite surreal, kind of like the death video from Ringu or The Ring. The film’s flashbacks and moments of violence cut to a harsher, noisier, low-fi appearance. The effect is so fitting that in originally watching the film, I actually wondered if the eerie effect was intentional. So while the lapse in quality is disappointing, the unintended jarring effect that resulted is quite cool.

Special Features and Extras

 Feature commentary with director Fred Olen Ray. Superb commentary track — Fred talks about making the film but also describes how it suffered at the hands of their distributor by being censored and recut. Honest, entertaining, and enlightening.

Remembering Scalps (21:20)
 Interviews with Fred Olen Ray, Richard Hench, Frank McDonald, and Chris Olen Ray

Theatrical Trailer (1:51)

The disc also includes a pair of fan-created works. They’re so woefully bad that they make Scalps look positively sophisticated by comparison, which is saying a lot. Still, I guess it was nice of Fred to indulge some fans by sharing their stuff.

“Scalps 2: The Return of DJ” (20:13)
 Unauthorized fan film imagines the sequel promised by Scalps‘s end credits.

“Blood Desert” Clip (1:39)
 Opening clip from an unauthorized remake of the film created by a Yemenese fan.


This is a pretty solid but at times quite amateurish low-budget horror flick with a strong tone of nocturnal dread. The bonus of a really informative in-the-trenches commentary also makes this one worthwhile for anyone interested in filmmaking. This is obviously not a movie for everyone, but if it sounds like your taste, you might want to snap up this limited edition while you can.

A/V Out.

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