Scum of the Earth is a 1974 American exploitation horror film directed by S.F. Brownrigg, starring Gene Ross, Norma Moore, Ann Stafford, Camilla Carr, Charlie Dell and Hugh Feagin. It was originally known as Death is a Family Affair but is best known as Poor White Trash Part II.
Helen (Norma Moore) and her new husband Paul (Joel Colodner) arrive at a holiday cottage in the woods where they plan to spend their honeymoon, but their idyll is ruined when a mystery attacker slams an axe into Paul’s chest.
Fleeing in terror as night falls, Helen encounters Odis Pickett (Gene Ross), whose shack is the only dwelling for miles around. He persuades the hysterical woman to stay overnight with him and his family, including his daughter Sarah (Camilla Carr), retarded son Bo (Charlie Dell) and pregnant wife Emmy (Ann Stafford). Reluctant, but terrified of the unseen killer, Helen agrees. However, the attacker is not to be dissuaded…
Filmed for three weeks on location in a hundred year old shack in Mexia, East Texas, with a small crew of about seven or eight, Poor White Trash Part II exudes sticky, sweaty sexual malaise and grimy gnat-nibbled discomfort.
A consummate tale of backwoods horror, it proves that the promise Brownrigg showed in his debut feature Don’t Look in the Basement was no fluke, emphasising his talent for depicting seedy, morally depraved characters and underlining his consistent streak of compassion for the isolated, under-privileged and vulnerable.
A lot of the appeal of Brownrigg’s films has to do with the strength and talent of his repertory cast, and Poor White Trash Part II is no exception; indeed it’s almost a star vehicle for the most prominent of the troupe, Gene Ross, whose sleazy lascivious good ole boy ‘Pick’ fairly oozes from the screen. Here is a man who introduces his pregnant wife as “the skinny one with the big belly”, and repels her offer of sexual attention by snarling “I don’t want no puckered old blown-up balloon!”
We soon discover that he is very friendly with Sarah, his bitterly sarcastic and sexually active daughter: when he tells her that he intends to have a talk “real private, like” with new arrival Helen, she taunts “I know what privates you got in mind – the same sort you been pokin’ in me since I wuz twelve.” This is followed by a heated exchange about how he gave her the clap.
So, not really the sort of film you can imagine the Texas Film Commission being involved with? Think again; actor Charlie Dell (who plays Bo) states that Brownrigg received around $200 a week from the T.F.C. (“and they were very lax about how they counted weeks!”).
Unlike her pig of a husband and her squabbling degenerate children, Emmy (Ann Stafford) is shown to be far more decent, sane and compassionate, but her stoicism in the face of her monstrous husband is perhaps the story’s most horrible facet. She knows how dangerous he is: while father and daughter take delight in taunting the distraught ‘city gal’, Emmy persuades Bo to fetch help, knowing her “liquored up” husband will soon attempt to rape the poor woman. Tucked away within what is essentially an exploitation film is a pointed attack on the primacy of the patriarchal figure in Southern family life: and in the figure of Emmy, the film expresses dismay at the breaking of womens’ spirits in abusive relationships.
In comparison to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, another tale of Deep South family life released around the same time, narrative momentum is not this movie’s greatest asset; instead claustrophobia is the watchword, as Brownrigg revels in confining us to close quarters with the sort of ‘white trash’ the cast of Pink Flamingos might look down upon.
Technically the film is better than its predecessor; Robert Alcott (who’d worked for Larry Buchanan before lensing Don’t Look in the Basement) excels here with what at first seems a limited palette, his subtle use of coloured lighting giving surprising variety to the wretched interiors and shadowy, threatening woodlands.
Art direction is more appreciable too – it seems that this time the budget could extend to rolls of hideous wallpaper as well as Don’t Look in the Basement’s battered furniture. Robert Farrar, whose scores for Brownrigg’s movies are an integral part of their sorrowful mood, livens things up occasionally with electric guitar, lending a stylised exploitation crackle to the proceedings.
Most importantly though, there’s a very entertaining script on offer. The credits name Gene Ross as writer of ‘Additional Dialogue’, a fact confirmed to me by Ross himself. Dell and Carr also added new lines to the script, making it something of a co-operative effort. Replete with choice bon mots such as “I’ll whup you till Hell won’t have it!”, this is a movie for connoisseurs of fetid verbal sniping.
Indeed the film is compelling as much for what is said as for what is shown: the violence meted out by the killer seems almost prim in comparison to the psychological violence eating away at the dysfunctional Pickett family.
Brownrigg’s original title for the project was Death is a Family Affair, but there’s no evidence that the film saw release as such. After doing the local rounds as Scum of the Earth for a while it was bought up and retitled again for national distribution. “In the tradition of The Godfather Part 2!”, boasted the distributor responsible for calling it Poor White Trash Part II and then putting it on a double-bill with Harold Daniels’ re-issued 1957 pot-boiler Poor White Trash (confusingly, the film’s British Intervision VHS release was simply as Poor White Trash (not Part II).
A note on the director’s credit: in interviews conducted for my next book, Nightmare USA Vol.2, Charlie Dell, Camilla Carr and Gene Ross all maintained that their fellow actor Annabelle Weenick (aka Anne MacAdams, Dr. Masters in Don’t Look in the Basement) was in many ways a co-creator of the films, offering the inexperienced Brownrigg technical advice and also making significant contributions to scripting and the handling of actors.
Stephen Thrower, HORRORPEDIA
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Scum of the Earth may well be the ultimate back-woods/redneck exploitation film, filthy and grimy, full of characters with no redeeming features and with utterly head-swirling dialogue, what it lacks in cash and dramatic art, it makes up for in sleaze. Brownrigg can be mentioned in the same breath as Andy Milligan, another low-budget director who played to his strengths but has divided critics ever since.
The film was released theatrically twice, under two different titles, doing rather better the second time around under the title Poor White Trash II. Whether this is because audiences had a fondness for the Peter Graves-starring Poor White Trash, or simply thought that anything with a sequel must be worth seeing is not known.
Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA
Image thanks/credits: Wrong Side of the Art!