“The trouble with the world was that nobody stopped or took any care.”
-Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
Fear of the unknown comes in multiple stripes with one of the most common and intrinsically human being the fear of what or whom you do not know. It isn’t pretty, but it is a fundamental truth about our species. Cultural stereotypes in particular play quite nicely into this, often finding the world of film a hothouse of exploration at best and gawking at worst. When Arkansas-born filmmaker S. F. Brownrigg made his 1974 obscuro-rural-horror masterpiece, Scum of the Earth, fear of Southerners had already been explored in everything ranging from H.G. Lewis’ best Dixie-gore remake of Brigadoon ever in the form of Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) to John Boorman’s Oscar nominated 1972 film, Deliverance. In fact, Scum of the Earth was re-titled Poor White Trash II to tie it to the Timothy Carey’s Cajun-fried opus Bayou (1957), which itself was later re-released as Poor White Trash to an obscene amount of money at various drive-ins and grindhouse box offices.
But compared to those titles, Scum of the Earth is its own animal. Thanks to its status as a low budget drive-in staple, coupled with its more famous title, it could be very easy to write it off as another Southern sadistic-sleaze piece. Too easy because this is S. F. Brownrigg, who was a dyed-in-the-wool genre auteur whose small but fairly mighty body of work often sported twisted tales of backwoods and small towns, sharp camera angles, on point composition and a stable of reliable and surprisingly versatile character actors. All of this is in high flag formation with Scum of the Earth, which begins with a lovely pastoral setting, complete with a lakeside cabin. The young married couple, Helen & Paul Fraser (Norma Moore and Joel Colodner), hug and banter back and forth while looking out at the horizon. Everything is sweet cheeked matrimony until Paul is suddenly murdered by an unseen axe-wielding assailant.
The attack is a bloodstained trauma that has Helen screaming and scrambling into the woods. Managing to evade, for the moment, her husband’s killer, she ends up running into a large, shifty eyed man clad in overalls and made of sweat, filth, and fouled intentions, by the name of Odis Pickett (Gene Ross.) Helen is shell shocked (understandably) but lights up at Odis’ mention of a phone and agrees to follow him back to his cabin, despite his already “friendly” attention and stating that “I ain’t killed nobody….yet!”
In the spartan, small home lies the Pickett clan. There’s his wife, sweet natured and heavily pregnant Emmy (Ann Stafford), pretty but edgy Sarah (the always unforgettable Camilla Carr) and her dim-witted to the extent of it possibly being a result of a birth defect brother, Bo (Charlie Dell). It does not take very long at all for the family dynamic to reveal itself, with Odis being sleazy and mean, even referring to Sarah, his youngest, as “…she ain’t so young anymore.” Sarah bitches about her brother, stating that “…all he does is watch..” In the center of this rotted core of familial dysfunction is poor Emmy, who looks roughly the same age as Sarah and got suckered into this whole situation when her gambling addict father promised Odis his daughter to cover an incurred debt. On top of all that, there is nary a phone in sight.
Helen, though still very stunned, is not oblivious to the house of unhappy backwards discord and tries to leave, but halts when Odis preys upon her fear (and fact) of her husband’s murderer still being very much on the loose. Meanwhile, Sarah and Bo are sent to the kitchen to dress the skinned possum that Odis brought home for dinner. Bo starts taunting Sarah about telling their Dad about how she has been earning a few extra dollars by entertaining some of the local fellas. She gets furious and starts threatening him with a hex. Her dim bulb brother instantly buys into her having powers of witchery. He is knee knocking scared, especially when she informs him it is too late and he is officially hexed. (One could argue that poor Bo was hexed the moment he was conceived.)
Emmy tries to comfort Helen, being the first person to show the new widow any kindness. She confides to Helen and then leaves her alone in the room to get some rest. It doesn’t take long for Odis to enter the room where Helen is asleep. Sarah, of all people, runs in to confront her father. A fight immediately ensues with several disturbing reveals, including Sarah yelling about him “..poking into me since I was twelve!” Emmy pleads with Bo to go over to the Watkins’ house and call the Sheriff before things can further downward spiral. Bo is scared witless between the killer and Sarah’s “hex,” but he runs out for help. Meanwhile, the fight escalates into Odis calling his daughter a whore and accusing her of giving half the town the clap, with her spitting back, “ Who gave it to me???” Why believe in a mythical Hell when slices of it live and thrive right here on Earth?
Bo might not be hexed but luck is not on his side since as he enters the woods, he is violently murdered by the still unseen killer. Finding the corpse of Bo, Odis, who already has been hitting the ‘shine, gets further liquored up as he grieves for the son that he brutalized only less than the women in his clan. Not wanting to damage his sterling reputation, he stumbles into the room where Helen is resting and viciously rapes her in a scene that is half in the shadows, making it all the more ugly because what you are not totally seeing, you are still totally hearing. Even worse, he assigns Helen, post-sexual assault, the task of cleaning up Bo’s corpse, while Sarah has to go out into the daylight woods to fetch a preacher.
With Sarah now out of the cabin and in the path of the killer, what will happen? Will she be his next victim? Will Helen and Emmy get enough of a gut full and turn the guns on Odis? The most important question is will any of the survivors ever be the same when it is all said and done? (That answer is the most obvious and hence, the most sad.)
Scum of the Earth is a film of real grit and color. While it has enough luridness and violence to have undoubtedly wooed the drive-in crowd back in the day, there is more to the film than the obvious. The beauty of an S.F. Brownrigg film is that the man knew how to craft real rural American South atmosphere. Anyone who has grown up around the countryside of this particular region can attest to its heady atmosphere, to the humidity, the beauty of the flora and fauna, and the starkness of some of the human poverty you will encounter. There is no other region quite like the countryside in the South. It is as beautiful as it is creepy. Brownrigg knew this and utilized this singular atmosphere so well for many of his films, with Scum of the Earth being the king.
The use of color and composition here paints each scene with a blend of unforgiving woods, vibrant bloody acts, and characters streaked with bad life. There are no moments of real light and relaxation to be found. The minute Paul is murdered is the moment that the rest of the ride is going to be ominous with little chance for hope. Adding to this is the fact that after awhile, dealing with the masked killer on the loose almost feels like the lesser of the two evils. The fact that the killer is generic until the great twist reveal at the very is good, but a somewhat expected trope. That’s not a criticism. In fact, far from it, but the specter of Odis Pickett feels more inherently terrifying because he is more real. A patriarch ruling the roost with sauced up fists and a reign of greasy, life-damaging terror happens everyday, whether it is in a borderline third world level shack or a gated subdivision. One is just more ignored because it is more cloaked in the garb of upper-middle class respectability.
One thing that adds further gravitas to all of this are the performances. Brownrigg cultivated a strong crew of reoccurring actors, led by Gene Ross as the lecherous, violent oaf of a messed up man, Odis. Ross had first made his mark in the Brownrigg universe with 1973’s Don’t Look in the Basement as the mentally ill Judge Oliver W. Cameron. Ross physically and emotionally inhabits the role of Odis like the world’s sketchiest second skin. If you have any backwoods relatives at all, this film could very well give you PTS, with the core of that being Ross’ performance.
Right up there with Ross is the inimitable Camilla Carr, who made a small but mighty film career out of being the most blazing, both in terms of physicality and presence, of the Brownrigg re-occurring players. With bright red hair, light blue eyes, and a sensual mouth, Carr is an alpha performer, which is demonstrated in full near feral force as Sarah. Defiant, innate street (woods?) smart and cruel in a way that victims of lifelong abuse can be as a means of self-protection,Carr is a mini-force of nature.
A light yin to the dark yang of the cast is Ann Stafford as poor, sweet Emmy. Being the only character with any real nurturing abilities, Stafford is so likable and empathetic, carrying Emmy with a mix of child bride who has aged decades on the inside due to external circumstances beyond her control. The rest of the cast are good, though Norma Moore isn’t given much to do other than cry and be wracked with trauma. (Given what Helen has to go through, this is more than understandable.)
Scum of the Earth, like any truly great low budget horror 70’s gem, features a country-tinged opening song, sporting the lyric that “death is a family affair.” With the Pickett clan, death is the least of the issues and with an ending whose happiness is nebulous at best, Scum of the Earth is a work that is the real deal. The best and most honest kind of horror films are the ones that leave you no easy answers. No clean resolutions so one can sleep well at night. Scum of the Earth may be only a movie at the end of the day, but the horrors contained within are happening right at this very moment in Anytown, USA. Have a day.