Scalper Puts an Insidious Spin on the Typical Slasher Formula

Image courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures

I have to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of slashers. That might be surprising coming from a big horror guy, but it’s true. Movies like Friday the 13th, Final Destination, and Sleepaway Camp just don’t do it for me. Slasher films are probably my least favorite subgenres. Now, there are some exceptions. When I first heard about Scalper, I thought it might be one of them. The film promised to put a cool supernatural twist on the typical slasher formula, so I decided to roll the dice and check it out.

Scalper is directed by Chad Ferrin, and it stars Susan Priver, Jake Busey, Bai Ling,  Kate Patel, and Scott Vogel. The film is about a serial killer who is on the loose, but he might not be your typical homicidal maniac. When this guy murders people, he cuts their faces off and wears them as masks, and that has psychic Clementine Carter very worried.

Some time ago, Clementine helped the police take down another serial killer called the Scalper, and this guy had that exact same M.O. So naturally, she thinks he might be back from the grave to continue his reign of terror and get revenge. However, Clementine isn’t completely sure, so she has to use her extrasensory abilities to track this villain down and stop him before it’s too late.

In other words, imagine if Insidious was a giallo film, and that’s pretty much Scalper. It’s admittedly a weird mix, but I’m happy to report that it mostly works. Let’s start with the Insidious comparison. Unlike more stereotypical psychics, Clementine doesn’t predict the future. Rather, she can talk to the dead and see past events. Clementine can even summon spirits to help her out when she’s really in a pickle.

Those abilities make her very similar to Elise, Lin Shaye’s character from the Insidious movies. When Clementine talks to ghosts, it almost feels like she’s in the Further. There’s even a scene where she travels through a spirit dimension that’s most likely a deliberate homage to the Further.

The killer standing by a door
Image courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures

Now, in a lot of films, those close similarities to Insidious would probably be a weakness, but not here. For starters, actress Susan Priver does a fantastic job playing Clementine, so while she definitely has a Lin Shaye-esque vibe, the character still stands on her own as a unique individual.

What’s more, even though the spirits have a bit of a Further-like feel to them, the way Clementine’s interactions with them affect her is very different from what we see in the Insidious franchise. Unlike Elise, this woman often goes into a trance-like state when she uses her abilities, and when she wakes up, she sometimes needs to breathe into a paper bag so she doesn’t hyperventilate. That’s very different from the way Elise operates when she travels to the Further or communicates with spirits, so despite the similarities, Scalper separates itself just enough that it never comes across as an Insidious rip-off.

Next, let’s talk a bit about the giallo elements. Any slasher flick is obviously going to have some points of contact with the giallo tradition (namely, the kills), but this one has a few deliberate nods to it as well. Most notably, the killer wears black gloves, and when Scalper begins, he also wears a mask that looks a hell of a lot like the iconic face covering in Blood and Black Lace. Granted, he eventually ditches the Bava-inspired mask for a more Leatherface-esque one made out of human skin, but until then, he feels like he was ripped right out of 1970s Italian cinema.

It’s a cool vibe, but it’s not the best thing about this villain. Rather, the kills are where this guy shines. Like a lot of low-budget horror films, Scalper doesn’t show us every single death in all its bloody glory, but when we do get to see them, they’re brutal. They’re not always super gory, but the Scalper wannabe/reincarnation has no qualms about going for the jugular (sometimes literally!). There’s even one death that I found genuinely shocking (you’ll know it when you see it), so when this killer goes on the attack, I think slasher fans are going to be quite happy.

Two people talking
Image courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures

Along similar lines, when he wears his victims’ faces as masks, it’s super creepy. In particular, there’s one that he wears for the majority of the movie’s runtime, and it looks a lot like the iconic mask from Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. It’s enough to send a few shivers down your spine the first few times you see it, so if you’re just going into this film for the horror, I think you’re going to be pretty pleased.

If you want more than just some cool kills and creepy horror imagery, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Aside from Susan Priver, the entire cast of Scalper is pretty mediocre, so I had a tough time taking these characters seriously. Clementine was the only one I believed, so when she wasn’t around, I always felt myself starting to check out.

Luckily, she has enough screen time that she saves the movie from floundering too much, but in the first two acts, there’s a lot of non-Clementine time too. It makes this part of Scalper a bit of a slog to get through, so for most of the first two-thirds, I wasn’t quite sure if I liked the film. I kept going back and forth, but when the third act hit, I was able to make a decision.

This final act focuses primarily on the things that make the movie work, so it salvages the entire experience for me. It leaves the film off on a pretty high note. I’m happy to say I had a good time overall with Scalper. And if you’re a hardcore horror fan, I think you will too. Admittedly, the movie’s weaknesses will probably outweigh its strengths in the eyes of more casual viewers, but for the die-hard genre nuts like me, this flick gets enough right that it’s worth a watch.

Scalper is set to hit VOD on January 16.

Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong movie fan, and his favorite genres are horror, superheroes, and giant monsters.

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