Logline: A group of student archeologists camp out in an off-limits ancient Indian burial ground for some grave desecration and hanky panky. The spirits of the dead are less than pleased.
Crime in the Past: One hundred Native Americans who have died in battle are buried in the land, their spirits becoming one with it.
Bodycount: 7 who will not be welcome on the reservation.
Themes/Moral Code: A bare-bones message about cultural respect, telling us not to disturb Indian burial grounds because it's bad for our longevity. As the final girl, D.J. (Jo Ann Robinson), points out for us, her companions on this trip have little regard for nature or the owners of the land they are intruding upon. These students rather callously dig up and remove ancient artifacts, one of them even going so far as to opine her reluctance to fork them over to some museum for nothing when her and her buds could always keep and sell them by themselves without anyone being the wiser. The students are, in essence, defiling the land of the Native Americans, and so the ghosts respond by doing the same to them-- in one case literally, as the character of Louise (Carol Sue Flockhart) is sexually assaulted by her boyfriend Randy (Richard Hench) while he's under the possession of an angry ghost. It's a not-too-subtle realization of the metaphor. This assault also renders inert any claim for these Indians' essential goodness. No one has the moral high ground here. It's icky.
Killer's Motivation: The killers are angry Black Claw Native American spirits desiring to punish those intrudes on their land. It's about as simple as that, as they never quite explain themselves (or speak at all). It's hard to tell if there's one spirit or many (we see various prosthetic make-up jobs, the most perplexing of which is a giant lion head that can curl the side of its mouth up into a snarl). They take revenge through driving folks to suicide (as seen in the opening sequence) but also through possessing them in order to have a tangible body carry out their slicing and dicing. This happens to Randy (who is dismissive of and disrespectful to the women early on in their trip, which makes the sexual violence he enacts later on (see above) mesh queasily with his non-ghostly-influenced personality) and also to our final girl, D.J. (who, while possessed, pulls her best "Karen Black at the end of Trilogy of Terror" face).
Final Girl: As mentioned above, D.J. is our sensitive, spiritual, hippie-dippie final girl. She's the quiet outcast of the group, preferring to spend much of her time off alone sitting on rocks, being at one with nature. She also possesses the most knowledge of Native American culture, as she demonstrates by carrying around her Indian prayer sticks and thumping them together every now and again. Appropriately, she's very disturbed by her friends' actions as they start disrespecting the land through their digging, defiling, and robbing. At this point she starts having visions of bad things to come, reporting to her assorted company that "this ground is alive with evil." Because she spends most of her time as a rock-sitting Cassandra, she doesn't develop in any interesting directions. She's spared because she's virginal, unlike the other girls in her company (though she does give Kershaw (Roger Maycock), the only boy who bothers to talk to her, one chaste kiss on the cheek). And at the end she is possessed by the spirit, happy to start more slaughtering. So there we go: development!
The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese: Director Fred Olen Ray, with a filmography of over one hundred films to his credit, the majority boasting titles as representative as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Bad Girls From Mars (1990), has developed a reputation as a consistent purveyor of hokey sleaze, but Scalps is one of the earliest efforts in his career and so is the tiniest bit more earnest. It's still plenty goofy-- the kids' archaeology professor, Prof. Machen (Kirk Alyn), utilizes every excuse to ham it up, and there is a shameless Forrest J. Ackerman cameo, which serves as promotion for whichever one of his books of Famous Monsters that he's clutching during his fifteen seconds on screen-- but one also has the sense that Ray and Co. were at least trying to produce a legitimate horror film. (Or at least as legitimate as a film bearing the credit "Produced By: The Eel" can be). Scalps aims high for a spooky atmosphere, but doesn't seem aware of how to create one other than by focusing the camera on the various desert landscapes and allowing a synthesizer to drone on glumly over top. It also lays on some quite strong gore effects (including a particularly gruesome throat-slashing and scalping), but deflates any sense of horror with moments like the one where a ghostly disembodied Indian head floats over a campfire before exploding, getting soot all over a character's face. Scalps is a mostly earnest effort that attempts to add some supernatural flair to the slasher formula before too many others tried the same, and while it's never very good, it is (at under an hour and twenty) very short. That I can appreciate.