Originally titled False Face and later rechristened Scalpel, this cheaply made thriller has a humdinger of a premise that’s delivered with a psychosexual kick. In many ways, the picture evokes the Hitchcockian suspense movies that Brian De Palma made in the same era, especially Obsession (1976), although the makers of Scalpel can’t muster anything approaching De Palma’s big-budget polish or his visual sophistication. Scalpel is watchable simply because the story is so outrageous and perverse, and the film’s two leads—Judith Chapman and Robert Lansing—commit wholeheartedly to the transgressive nature of the material. So even if Scalpel feels schlocky at times, it’s a mildly diverting journey into darkness.
Lansing plays Dr. Phillip Reynolds, a plastic surgeon in the Deep South who has suffered a number of personal tragedies. His wife drowned, and soon afterward, his adult daughter disappeared. (Viewers soon learn that Phillip murdered his adulterous bride, as well as her lover, and that his daughter fled with good reason.) One evening, Phillip nearly drives over a woman who’s been left for dead in a city street by an assailant who beat her so badly her face was almost completely destroyed. Concurrently, Phillip learns that his father’s estate has been left in its entirety to Phillip’s missing daughter. Thus Phillip contrives a wild scheme to transform “Jane Doe’s” face into a re-creation of his daughter’s face. Phillip brings “Jane” into his confidence, promising her half of the $5 million estate if she pretends to be the elusive Heather Reynolds. Naturally, she agrees—and unnaturally, the two become lovers, since the sight of his daughter’s face drives Phillip mad with desire. Yikes! It’s giving nothing away to say that things get complicated when the real Heather resurfaces, since that twist is preordained by the premise, but writer-director John Grissmer has fun working with predictable narrative elements.
Lansing blends qualities of psychosis and self-loathing into his characterization, while Chapman does an okay job of contrasting bad-girl “Jane” with good-girl Heather—both the “real” Heather and the character whom “Jane” portrays before things get messy. Composer Robert Colbert wisely borrows musical tropes from the Bernard Hermann playbook, since Hermann scored the De Palma and Hitchcock movies after which Scalpel was patterned, so even though the music in Scalpel is derivative, at least it’s selectively derivative. Overall, there’s just enough gore and humor and sex on display to justify Scalpel’s existence, and 0ne could do worse when looking for an obscure example of twisted ’70s horror.