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Scalpel   1977   Arrow Video Blu ray                                                            Published in "Screem" #35, 2018

                                   Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic storytelling that addresses and explores elements that are unique to Southern culture.

                         Brooding castles are replaced with Spanish Moss-draped trees and plantations. The quaint village becomes the isolated small town.

                         But the madness, taboos and sinister secrets remain the same. The subgenre runs the gamut from some of Hollywood’s most

                         respected films (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951; To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962; Deliverance, 1972) to its cheapest and most exploitative (hello, Hershell Gordon Lewis). John Grissmer’s Scalpel will certainly never find its place alongside Cape Fear (1962, 1991) or Sling Blade (1996), but it’s nowhere near as tawdry as Harold Daniels’s Poor White Trash (1957) or Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964).

          The film begins—in true “old dark house” fashion--with the reading of the Thorndike family patriarch’s will. The assembled snipes and vultures are shocked to hear that everything has been left to Heather (Judith Chapman, whose television credits include “Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century,” “General Hospital,” “B.J. and the Bear,” and many others), who hasn’t been seen in over a year. While the family is clueless about Heather’s motives, the viewer is not: Heather’s father, the sullen and egotistical plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Robert Lansing; The 4D Man, 1959; Gary Seven from the “Star Trek” episode “Assignment: Earth;” The Nest, 1988), killed her boyfriend. In flashback we discover he paddled his boat serenely around the lake as his wife drowned. Phillip doesn’t tolerate rivals for his daughter’s affections.

          Not long after the reading of the will, Phillip discovers a young stripper who’s been severely beaten (a scene that looks and feels like it was lifted out of a low budget roughie). Phillip takes “Jane Doe” (Judith Chapman) to his clinic to treat her injuries. However, his obsession with his daughter causes him to reconstruct Jane’s face in Heather’s image. At this point first-time director John Grissmer (Blood Rage, 1987) seems to be taking us into Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960) territory, but that is not the case. Instead, he molds a Southern Gothic version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Phillip teaches the recuperating Jane every intimate detail about the Thorndike family so he can pass her off as Heather. They plan to split the inheritance as soon as Jane’s identity as Heather is confirmed and she takes possession of the money.

            But their plan begins to unravel. Uncle Bradley (Arlen Dean Snyder; Prison, 1987) grows suspicious, leading Phillip to add another homicide to his list. Phillip begins acting on his incestuous impulses with Jane/Heather; and as you’ve probably guessed by now, it isn’t long before the real Heather shows up, setting up a ménage-a-trois of madness, manipulation and murder. Only one person gets to walk away with the inheritance, but will it be Phillip, Jane or Heather?

            Scalpel (originally titled False Face) doesn’t waste time developing and revealing character motivations.  We know from the outset that Reynolds is a bastard and a murderer, Bradley is the family drunk, and the entirety of the Thorndike clan is riddled with jealousies, hypocrisy and cruelty. Instead, Grissmer invests his time with the machinations of Phillip/Jane/Heather, deftly giving the film a seedy-but-respectable veneer—not unlike the classic Southern Gothic Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

          Arrow Video offers two presentations of the film. The first is the Lachman version, named for Edward Lachman, the original director of photography, who was intimately involved in its creation. Lachman has reproduced his vision with a transfer that is heavy on greens and yellows, creating an entirely different tone to the film. The humid colors give a visual heaviness to the scorching Southern days, and imbue interior scenes with a discomforting, scuzzy aura. The second option (the Arrow version) is the standard “one light” approach (where everything is given the same tonal quality). Both versions are a pleasure to the eye and Arrow has arranged it so viewers can toggle between versions for comparison.

Film historian (and “Screem” contributor) Richard Harland Smith is on hand for a solo audio commentary. Smith’s prodigious research is evident as he draws out the most subtle nuances of setting and music, delves into the details of even the most minor supporting actors, provides historical and social context, shares a wealth of information on regional Atlanta-based performers of the time, and leaves no stone unturned in his quest to inform and enlighten. You’ll come to the end of it with your brain feeling like it’s been drinking from a fire hose! The only hitch is that the commentary sounds as if it were recorded in a tinny, enclosed area. However, the echo-y quality does become less distracting as the commentary proceeds. Smith’s commentary accompanies the Arrow version of the film.

          As is standard operating procedure for Arrow Video releases, Scalpel gets plenty of quality extra material. “The Cutting Edge” is a new 14-minute interview with Grissmer. He is likeable and engaging as he shares his memories of the production and how it came about. “Dead Ringer” is a 17 m., 20 s. interview with Judith Chapman. She is an animated bundle of fun who reminisces about her favorite scenes, and brings her own Southern heritage (she was born in South Carolina) out to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the film. “Southern Gothic,” a fifteen-and-a-half minutes interview with the aforementioned DP Edward Lachman, offers the technical perspective on the lighting and coloring of the film. Lachman reiterates the value of involving DPs and directors in the restoration of their films whenever possible. Rounding out the extras are a theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and reversible liner art. The first pressing of the package also includes a booklet with new essays on the film.

          Given its Gothic trappings, madness, and sense of moldering doom, had Scalpel been made fifteen or twenty years earlier, it would’ve fit nicely onto a double-bill with one of Roger Corman’s Poe films, or alongside Hammer’s Paranoiac (1963), which also took Josephine Tey’s novel “Brat Farrar” as its source material.

                                                Released in the summer of 1977, Shock Waves was immediately capsized by box office giants Star Wars, Smokey and

                                      the Bandit, The Spy Who Loved Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Saturday Night Fever. This low budget gem

                                      stood little chance of keeping its head above water against such odds. Yet its release was advantageous in one significant way:

                                      it would be nearly two years before George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead redefined the zombie subgenre. It’s doubtful the

                                      bloodless Shock Waves would’ve fared well against the onslaught of gore-soaked ghouls soon to arrive from Romero, Lucio

                                Fulci (Zombie), Umberto Lenzi (Nightmare City), and Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead).

          Shock Waves centers on the passengers and crew of a tour boat who find themselves stranded on a tropical island after nearly colliding with a mysterious vessel. Their explorations lead them to a disused hotel that serves as the home of a former Nazi SS Commander. Urging them to flee in his own boat, the Commander informs the group they are in danger from “The Death Corps,” a Nazi experiment where murderers, rapists, and the detritus of society were resurrected from the dead and released into battle. (The Commander’s unit was designed for use in submarines that would never have to surface). These creatures--being unable to differentiate between friend and foe--attacked anything living and were withdrawn from the war. Following Germany’s defeat, the Commander sank his ship with the undead aboard and assumed a self-imposed exile on the island. The arrival of the tour boat triggers the release of the zombies who emerge to carry out their murderous orders.

          Ken Wiederhorn (Eyes of a Stranger, 1981) made his directorial debut a memorable one by landing genre veterans Peter Cushing and John Carradine (for $5,000 apiece). Cushing brings his usual professionalism and presence to the role of the cadaverous SS Commander. Carradine—with 35 more film credits to follow before his death in 1988--seems to enjoy his role as the bedraggled tour boat captain. Wiederhorn also took creative advantage of the wreck of the S.S. Sapona--a concrete-hulled cargo ship that had been grounded near Bimini (Bahamas) by a 1926 hurricane—to serve as the derelict resting place of the undead.

          The zombies are some of the most unique in the history of the subgenre. They do not shamble around but move with precision and efficiency. They do not eat flesh nor do they moan and groan. They emerge silently from the depths of the ocean, creeks, and even a swimming pool, their blond hair plastered to their heads and their eyes hidden by dark goggles. The make up works well and remains impressive all these years later, a testament to its quality (considering how much salt water it had to endure).  Underwater scenes are well executed, especially shots of the jack-booted zombies walking across the ocean floor.  The ethereal feel of these scenes further augments the surreal tone of the film.

          The tourists are ill defined, as are the crew of the boat. But Shock Waves isn’t an exploration into the psyches of different characters. It’s survival horror in the face of perfectly relentless, soundless killing machines. The presence of Carradine and Cushing help offset the blandness of the characters and lend the film a gravitas it would have otherwise lacked. Complimenting the whole package is Richard Einhorn’s ghostly electronic score that distorts aquatic sounds to heighten the creepiness.

          Blue Underground’s DVD includes an 8-minute interview with an amiable Luke Halpin (who played crewman Keith); TV and radio spots; a poster, still, and production art gallery; and a trailer. Rounding out the extras is an informative audio commentary featuring Wiederhorn, make up designer Alan Ormsby (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things), and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray. The trio covers a lot of ground, from technical details to behind-the-scenes anecdotes (such as how one of the producers kept the film from becoming a horror comedy, and Cushing’s yearning for buckwheat pancakes).

The image quality is passable given the Super 16mm film was blown up to 35mm. Colors tend to be muddy and flat, which is a shame considering the lush tropical setting and underwater environments. The print displays plenty of scratches and dust from its life on the drive-in circuit. Blue Underground has scheduled a Blu-ray release for the end of 2014. It will be a pleasure to see the digital upgrade enhancing this already haunting and unforgettable film.

In a subgenre known for its over-the-top gore effects and gut-munching set pieces, Shock Waves stands alone as an competent chiller that--despite its predictability--succeeds by merit of its style, heart, and creativity.

Shock Waves     1977     Blue Underground Blu ray

The Stendhal Syndrome, Blu ray, review, Dario Argento

The Stendhal Syndrome   1996     Blue Underground Blu ray

                                              “Works of art have power over us. Great works of art have great power.”

                                              So says the sadistic rapist and murderer to his next victim after she succumbs to the “Stendhal Syndrome” (a         

                                    psychosomatic medical condition that is triggered when a person is mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by beauty). While

                                    Argento’s twelfth feature film didn’t carry a lot of power upon its initial release, its power has grown in the intervening years. It                                        treads into some extremely dark and brutal psychological territory, and reminds us why rape isn’t just a physical violation. It’s

                                    capable of destroying every aspect of a person’s life as well. Argento does some of his best work by showing us what that can look

                                    like.

          Policewoman Anna Manni (Asia Argento; Argento’s Phantom of the Opera, 1998; Scarlet Diva, 2000) is sent to Florence by her superiors in Rome to exchange information with the authorities regarding a serial rapist. She receives an anonymous tip that her quarry will be at the Uffizi Gallery Museum, and Anna goes in search of him. Surrounded by the exquisite works of classical art, Anna is overcome by the Stendhal Syndrome and collapses. She recovers but has difficulty remembering who she is and where she is, and is assisted by a far-too-helpful museum visitor.

Back in her hotel room, Anna continues to suffer hallucinations (that give the viewer a small amount of backstory), including one of the man from the gallery. Unfortunately, Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann; Resident Evil: Apocalypse, 2004; Stalingrad, 2013) is no illusion. He’s the sociopath she’s been hunting, and he takes perverse joy in brutally raping Anna. When she awakens from her ordeal, she is in a car where Alfredo is raping another woman. He kills this victim at the moment of sexual climax by shooting her through the cheek (I’m still not sure how a bullet going through both cheeks can instantly be fatal, but hey, it’s an Argento film so just go with it…).

          Deeply traumatized after her escape from Alfredo, Anna meets with police psychologist Dr. Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli; Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975; Caligula, 1979). He doesn’t provide any real help and Anna struggles to adjust to her new reality as a rape victim. She shortens her hair and adopts an androgynous appearance in order to desexualize herself and distance herself from the trauma. She experiences trouble in her relationship with co-worker/boyfriend Marco (Marco Leonardi; From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, 1999), and is haunted by the thought that Alfredo remains at large.

          Anna visits her hometown to recuperate but Alfredo follows her. He kidnaps her again and imprisons her in a warehouse where he rapes and tortures her. She escapes and turns the tables on Alfredo: she punctures his throat with bedsprings, gouges out his eyeball, repeatedly knees him in he groin, shoots him, and finally snaps his neck by hammering him with the butt of her gun. Anna drags the paralyzed rapist to a cliff and kicks him into a rushing river (where we hear the sickening crunch of his head hitting a rock). However, the specter of Alfredo continues to permeate the narrative. He is no longer present but his malignant influence remains. His brutalization of Anna amounts to far more than sexual violation. He gets inside her head and destroys every aspect of her existence.

          Anna returns to Rome where she adopts yet another persona. She re-feminizes herself with a sultry Veronica Lake wig, makeup and dresses. But when her new boyfriend, Marie (Julien Lambroschini; Le péril jeune, 1994) ends up dead along with Marco, Anna is convinced that Alfredo is back, a jealous paramour who will never let her go.

          When the film was released, the press castigated Argento for having his own daughter endure the harrowing intensity of the rape scenes. It was the worst example yet, they said, of Argento’s misogynistic attitude. But the media failed to see beyond the surface. They missed the deeper message of brokenness, pain and anxiety that rape survivors must deal with.

          Argento wanted an unflinching, in-your-face film. This was his first project after the dismal reception of Trauma (1993) and Two Evil Eyes (1990), both filmed in America. His experiences working in the U.S. did not endear Argento to Hollywood’s burdensome restrictions and expectations. He was not allowed the creative control to which he was accustomed. And on top of that, fans blasted both films as “sell outs” because they lacked the director’s signature visual creativity. Stendhal was his opportunity to start fresh back in his home country and he held nothing back.

Argento has said that he wanted the violence to mirror that of mid-1990s society, and while it is harsh and nasty, it doesn’t showcase the ultra-violent set pieces of Suspiria (1977) or Tenebrae (1982). Stendhal has a grittier, scummier tone than anything he’d done before.

          The brutality makes for uncomfortable viewing, but it’s no match for the psychological torment that Anna endures. She tries different coping mechanisms in her quest for healing and normality: painting, seeing Dr. Cavanna, visiting her hometown. But nothing brings any relief. The violations, rage and helplessness fracture her sanity, and the memories of Alfredo haunt her every move. Asia Argento does a fine job of portraying this mental deterioration. The closing scene—with Anna being carried to safety (and, we hope, real healing) by her concerned and supportive co-workers--is as powerful as it is poignant.

          Stendhal was the first Italian film to use the (then) new CGI technology. Some of it, such as Alfredo’s reflection on a slow-motion bullet, still works well. CGI smoke and sparks from the gun muzzle, and the ridiculous pill-swallowing scene, are simply too dated to enjoy. We might’ve thought they were cool in 1996 but in retrospect they’re just painful to watch. Thankfully, most of the CGI work is less conspicuous and enhances the narrative rather than draws attention away from it.

          Artwork has always featured prominently in Argento’s films: the spiked sculpture in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), the horrific wall painting in Deep Red (1975), the peacock objet d’art in Suspiria. He uses artwork not only as props or clues, but as emotional signifiers. This reaches its apex in the scenes where Anna attempts to express (or exorcise) her trauma through paint and canvas. But creating art isn’t sufficient. She literally becomes the artwork herself: a paint-smeared emotional wreck who yearns to retreat from her new reality. Classical art is everywhere throughout the film. There are few scenes that don’t have some form of artistic expression—statues, paintings, graffiti, prints--even her hotel’s elevator has an inescapable bas relief on the wall. The power of art is never forgotten, minimized or tossed aside.

          Blue Underground originally released The Stendhal Syndrome on Blu ray in 2008. They have followed that up with a new 2K restoration that is marvelous to behold. Struck from the original uncensored negative and presented in its intended 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the images are perfectly balanced in terms of color and depth. In places the detail is so stunning that it almost appears three-dimensional. When the viewer can make out individual drops of sweat on a character’s forehead in a medium shot, you know you’ve got something special.

          Exclusive extras in this edition include new interviews with Asia Argento (20 minutes), co-writer Franco Ferrini (14 minutes), and special effects make-up artist Franco Casagni (10 minutes), along with a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. The audio commentary by Troy Howarth (author of “So Deadly, So Perverse” and “Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films”) never lags and offers plenty of information on Argento’s troubled U.S. film productions, actors and scenes, and Stendhal’s importance in Argento’s canon of work. Howarth’s commentary is relaxed and inviting, never pretentious, and easy to follow.

          Audio options include 7.1 DTS-HD; 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX; 2.0 DTS-HD, and subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish. The Italian version of the film is recommended since Asia’s dialogue was dubbed for the English version (in a baffling move that dilutes some of the power of her performance). A two-disc set (Blu ray/DVD) is available as well as a Limited Edition three-disc set (Blu ray/two DVDs) that also has a collectible booklet with a new essay by Michael Gingold.