Obscure Horror Cinema: Scalpel

by William Burns

One of the oldest and most constant tropes in horror has been the mad doctor. Reflecting our collective fears of science, the body, and knowledge, the mad doctor corrupts his/her duty to serve humankind and to do no harm by letting selfishness and ego become the prime directives of their elevated stature in society. From Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Caligari, Dr. Jekyll to Dr. Orloff, Dr. Lecter to Dr. Giggles, attaining a medical degree gives these characters a license to exercise power over the rest of society, to go beyond the limitations of humanity, and weld godlike control over life and death.  The temptations to abuse this supremacy are great and their drive to attain this importance also creates inflated egos and a Nietzchean belief that they are above the laws and commandments that the rest of society must abide by. Horror movie doctors reference the anxiety we regular people have with physical exams, surgeries, illness, and hospitals and increase it 1,000 fold.  A doctor’s brilliance can very easily slide into insanity, and it is this madness combined with the faith we have in doctors and the willingness to let them have access our bodies that enters into the horrific. One of the lesser known entries in the mad doctor genre is 1977’s Scalpel. Anticipating the Nip/Tuck series by 20 years, Scalpel focuses on plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds and his quest to wrest a family inheritance from his estranged and incommunicado daughter. Dr. Reynolds’s plan involves using his god given surgical prowess to reconstruct the face of a down on her luck exotic dancer so that she can impersonate his daughter and thus he can get his hands on five million.  This fool proof scheme hits a snag when his real daughter shows up and the true nature of the father/daughter relationship is revealed.  Director John Grissmer slowly ratchets up the tension as Reynolds becomes more and more deranged the deeper he gets tangled up in his and his “daughter’s” machinations, leading the viewer to question exactly what happened between father and daughter and to what lows the good doctor will stoop to for the money. Robert Lansing gives an impressive performance as the scheming doctor, equal parts arrogant and psychotic, using his surgical skills for greed and evil. Scalpel never had a home video release but can be found here:


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