Scalps! New, Limited Edition Blu From Retromedia (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Oh boy, Scalps. Several fond memories of late night sleepover rentals date back to the old, big box double-bill VHS tape of Slayer and Scalps. Slayer was super slow and boring, nothing happened until right up to the very end, which was admittedly cool. But it would always put at least half the camp to sleep. But if you stayed up past it, oh man, Scalps was the best! A crazy old Indian spirit sets upon a group of archaeology students excavating an ancient burial ground, possessing and scalping them left and right. It probably helped Scalps a lot that it had the perfect, standard-lowering lead in to make it look its best, but our local Blockbuster easily earned back the cost of buying that tape just from me and my friends taking it out year after year. And now, as a grown man in 2016, I just got the new, special limited edition blu-ray.
Admittedly, seeing it as an adult, its flaws are a bit more obvious. Hokey writing, atrocious acting. It's not kind of movie I could ever recommend to "normal" people. haha  Only if I knew they were deeply entrenched horror fans who were familiar with early 80s, low budget video fare. But if you are, I have to say, a lot of the film's effectiveness remains. It sounds like they're using stock library Indian drums, but it's still atmospheric as the characters hear the sound off in the distance around the lone campfire in the middle of the night. The special effects are cool, the pacing is strong, and the fact that the film pushes the line in terms of brutal mean-spiritedness. I haven't seen this film with a theatrical audience, but I imagine the girl hysterically insisting from very early on that, "we're all gonna DIE," gets a lot of laughs. But by the fourth or fifth vicious death, they've probably stopped laughing. Add to all that some ambitious animatronic visions and an inflated cameo by Forrest J. Ackerman, walking around with a copy of his Mr. Monsters book in-hand, and you've got a pretty neat little horror flick if you dig that sort of thing.
We're gonna diiiiiiie!!!
So director Fred Olen Ray put out a special 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition DVD through his own company, Retromedia in 2004. It had an audio commentary, lost footage restored and a widescreen transfer, so you can believe I was all over that! But it's an old, fairly out dated DVD by today's standards, ready for an upgrade. So I was just as ready to jump on this new 2016, limited edition blu-ray, also from Retromedia. So you bet, we're going to compare them both right now!
2004 DVD on top; 2016 blu-ray beneath.
So, two conflicting thoughts ran through my mind as soon as I started comparing these discs. Boy, this blu-ray doesn't look so great and boy, what an improvement it is over the DVD! I called the DVD out dated, and now you can see for yourself. It's non-anamorphic, it's interlaced. The brights are flared out. The blu-ray gives us a new 2k scan mostly from the original 35mm negative, giving us more detail, more natural colors... but it sure doesn't look 35mm quality, does it? Well, that's because this is a 16mm film blown up to 35. So it's awash in big, chunky grain. Plus, the cinematography itself is flawed, so some of the lack of detail is down to scenes in this film being literally out of focus.

The aspect ratio is also improved upon. The DVD has a 1.74:1 image floating in its giant, non-anamorphic windowbox. The blu-ray, meanwhile, slightly letterboxes its widescreen image to 1.85:1, giving the film a little more picture on both sides and along the top. It doesn't look like this has been DNR'd or otherwise adversely tampered with. You're not going to play this blu-ray on the showroom floor of your high-end fancy television storefront, but it's still leagues ahead of the DVD.
2004 DVD on top; 2016 blu-ray beneath.
Oh, and did I say this was "mostly" scanned from the original 35mm negative? Yeah, that's because some of the censored scenes had to be restored via tape sources. So it's a composite, and yes, those scenes are of lesser quality. This was the case on the DVD, too. So, yeah, the video-sourced scenes look worse than the rest of the movie, but they do look better here then on the DVD, and it's easier to tell what's going on in the darkness.
Another big improvement from the DVD to blu are the extras. Not that the DVD was too shabby. It's main feature was a very open and honest audio commentary by Fred Olen Ray and producer Lee Lankford. It's full of great info about the film, even if the filmmakers seem rather ashamed of their own film. But they're funny, have lots of memories and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and answer some of the questions you've probably been wondering since you first saw the film. But besides the commentary, there's not much else: just the trailer and a still gallery.

By the way, on the old commentary, Ray talks about how the distributors took the film after he sold it to them and re-edited it using their outtakes and extra footage. He mentioned he was thinking of recutting it the way it should be, but didn't have the original audio tracks to properly restore it. Well, just in case you were wondering (since I was), the blu-ray is the same cut with the extra lion-man footage and other stuff the director didn't like. I actually like that footage, so I don't mind; but yeah, it's the same version of the film. I guess you could call it the distributors' cut with restored gore.

Anyway, onto the blu, the first thing I noticed is the case says "New audio commentary track by Fred Olen Ray." And yes, this is an all new, completely different audio commentary from what was on the DVD. Certainly a lot of facts are repeated on both, but Ray has taken a whole new pass on the commentary, this time on his own. But then the blu-ray goes much further, starting with a great 20+ minute featurette called Remembering Scalps, featuring interviews with Richard Hench, Frank McDonald, his son Chris Olen Ray and of course Fred himself. Ray repeats a lot of anecdotes from the commentary verbatim, but once it gets to the actors, things pick up considerably and it's a pretty fun little retrospective.
Scalps II: non-anamorphic, just like the original DVD.
After that, there's a 20+ minute fan film by a guy named Dustin Ferguson in 2009. You may remember the closing credits of the original film ended with the gag: "Next Summer watch for SCALPS II THE RETURN OF D.J." Well, somebody made it. Scalps II is about what you'd expect from a homemade fan film, but it uses the original film's score and pays close homage to the original. And along those lines, there's also a clip from a 2004 unauthorized remake of Scalps called Blood Desert. It's just one minute-long scene re-enacting Scalps' first death, and feels like a more professional made effort. You probably won't be revisiting either after your first watch, but they're amusing to have on here as bonuses.

The only other extra on here is the trailer. The stills gallery stayed with the DVD, I guess.
This blu is limited to 2000 copies, and it's all region; so if you're interested, probably don't wait too long. Of course, the film's got another release pending in the UK from 88 Films. That's due sometime in April, and while I'd guess it's using the same transfer, extras haven't been finalized apart from a director's commentary, a booklet and the trailer. So that's a question mark on the horizon still. But regardless of what happens with that, this blu is a huge, very welcome improvement over the old DVD. If you've got it, double-dip, though maybe hang onto it still anyway just for the exclusive commentary track. At the moment, however, there's no question that Retromedia's blu-ray is the definitive version to own.


  1. Retromedia's original SCALPS DVD was a major chore to sit through and watch,with one of the worst transfer to the DVD formast and a majority of the film being drowned out in purple coloring. By the looks of those pics from the Blu ray,it looks like SCALPS has been somewhat properly restored(despite he blurry looking re-installed censored footage) and without the purple coloring that plagued the previous DVD.

    1. Yeah, having the gore scenes from tape is a little disappointed, but I guess if no one's got the film elements, no one's got 'em. What can ya do? I've read that some people are holding out for the 88 release, and I can't blame 'em; but my guess is it will use the same master and look about the same. But we'll see. Overall, I was happy with this, especially given, as you say, how bad the DVD was.