Hard to figure out who exactly are the scum of the earth in S.F Brownrigg's 1974 backwoods cult classic. The sleazy brutish patriarch Odis Pickett whose remote shack the long-suffering Helen takes refuge at ? Could it be Pickett's clapped-out alley tramp of a daughter who threatens her retarded brother with hexes and floats her favours among the local boys (as well as her father). Or maybe it's the mysterious homicidal maniac stalking the woods and killing the cast off with various sharp objects ? Either way, good, bad or indifferent, no one gets off lightly in the brooding, gloomy and downbeat world of a Brownrigg film.
Originally entitled Scum of the Earth, how Brownrigg's film settled on it's more well known title is one of those convoluted tales from the Babylonian days of Exploitation Cinema, stretching back to 1957 and the lurid Southern melodrama Bayou. In 1961 Bayou had been reworked into the more roughie-tinged Poor White Trash, and went on to earn a considerable profit for its distributor. Ten years later the film was still doing good business at drive-ins, so much so that Dimension Pictures distributed the film in the mid-70's on a double-bill with Scum of the Earth, now renamed Poor White Trash Part II. The name evidently stuck - US label Magnum put the film out on VHS in the mid-80's under that title while in the UK, Intervision distributed the film on video (in that incredible sleeve above) simply as Poor White Trash, which must have confused punters when the title on the actual print included the Part II suffix. The film opens with newly weds Helen and Paul arriving at a lakeside cabin, but before they can begin their honeymoon, an unseen assassin buries an axe in Paul's chest. Helen flees in terror deeper into the woods and chances upon local Odis Pickett who brings Helen back to his home where she is effectively held prisoner and subjected Pickett's perverse designs...
Made around the same time as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and featuring a braless and bell bottomed actress who could have stumbled out of Hooper's film, Poor White Trash is relatively restrained in what it shows onscreen - a few spurts of blood, a rape that mercifully cuts away before the actual assault, but the film positively oozes a thick sinister atmosphere, much like Brownrigg's best work. As with the director's previous film, Don't Look In the Basement, Poor White Trash confines itself to mostly one location - Pickett's ancient looking shack which may well be one of Cinema's least alluring places, with its vomit-colored mouldering wallpaper and decidedly rickety furniture which looks like it may fall asunder at any moment. This is a film which grates on the senses - from the eccentric soundtrack, which features a truly depressing theme song ("Death is a Family Affair") to the inconsistent exterior day-for-night photography, a technical limitation of the production no doubt, creating a weird disorientating effect where the sense of time is gradually eroded. Helen may have slipped the clutches of the maniac patrolling the woods, but she might as well be marooned on a hostile alien world.
The low-budget look of the film is apprarent, but Poor White Trash is an accomplished piece of work. Unusually for a film of this kind, the cast is quite strong, most of them regulars in the Brownrigg repertory. First and foremost, the crater-faced Gene Ross as the sneering Odis Pickett is wonderfully greasy, you can almost smell the stale moonshine breath as he wrestles with that unruly comb-over. Marvellous too is Camilla Carr as the whore-ish daughter Sarah, landing the film's best line, when in a fit of jealously over her father wanting a little talk with Helen, private like, declares "Yeah, I know what kind of private you got in mind. The same one you been pokin' in me since I was gone on twelve" Fine support too from Ann Stafford as the dreamy but kind-hearted wife Emmy, (sold to Odis by her father to pay a debt) and Charlie Dell as the mildly retarded son Bo. Brownrigg's direction is impressive too, with some eerie prowling camerawork around the woods (prefiguring the killer POV shots of Friday the 13th by five years), and some aggressive close-ups making the film feel all the more uptight. Complimenting Brownrigg's visuals, is Mary Davis' excellent script full of ripe dialogue (at one point Odis says to Emmy, "What make you think I'd wanna poke a blow'd up balloon like you") and brilliantly conveys Helen's predicament with a simple line or two, like in a scene where Helen decides to brave the woods to reach a neighbour's phone, and is taunted and discouraged by Odis "Ol' Tom and his boys, theys generally pretty liquor'd up coming evening...they ain't got no womenfolk to care of 'em". Nasty stuff indeed.
Back in 2009 Grindhouse Releasing annouced a full blown special edition of Poor White Trash, under the Scum of the Earth title, and promised an extensive restoration of the film from the best surviving elements, plus comprehensive extras covering the making of the film, but at the time of writing this release has yet to materialize. The film is still included as part of Grindhouse's roster of films so perhaps a DVD is still on the cards. The trailer can be viewed over at their website.