Saturday, 31 March 2012

Poor White Trash Part II

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.

9 comments:

  1. I'm not too familiar with this film, but I do love me some backwoods slasher flicks. What you said about its title was rather intriguing - that the film is also as competent and effective as you say it makes me believe Poor White Trash might be something of a gem waiting to be uncovered. Great write up.

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  2. Many thanks James, yes this one is required viewing for backwoods aficionados, it's drenched in a sludgey atmosphere of rural menace, and not exactly a great endorsement for the Lone Star state. I discovered the film in the local video shop, when that Intervision sleeve literally lept off the shelf - truly a product of the great halcyon days of '80's VHS. Later, the film was put in context when Brownrigg's earlier film Don't Look in the Basement briefly hung around the hinterland of the Video Nasties list. I owned the Intervision VHS for some years but in a fit of madness which I still can't quite believe, I dumped most of my pre-cert tapes when DVD came onstream, and sadly Poor White Trash was one of the tapes that was culled. I hope this one surfaces some day and gets the attention it deserves...

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  3. Such a familiar video sleeve but I had no idea it was Scum of the Earth under another title. Brownrigg's a film-maker I am only beginning to discover now (mostly via youtube I have to admit). I know how you feel about discarding those VHS, Wes, - I feel the same about my vinyl collection. I sold it in the 1980s for a song. Still kicking myself.

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  4. Yep me too, I sold a lot of my vinyl off over the years and have only a fraction of it left, including my prized original 2LP of Metal Machine Music, (which was not so easy to find in the pre-Internet days) and I still have all my Bowie originals. What kind of stuff did you have Jon ?

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  5. A few complete collections of 70s stuff. Mike Oldfield. Steely Dan. Blood Sweat and Tears. Tangerine Dream. Kate Bush.
    Original pressings.
    Damn...

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  6. Good to see your review for this film. About time this was acknowledged as the American classic it really is, akin to Texas Chainsaw, equally as grimy and distrubing. As you point out, the stifling atmosphere is in the ugliness, the set design, the authenticity of performances. I like your point about the muddled sense of time created by the clumsy grading. The dialogue is so well handled too, the whole film is a work of art...I also used to have the VHS with the above cover. Sold a lot of stuff, sadly...

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  7. Many thanks Paul. I like to think of Brownrigg as a Southern fried Bergman and Poor White Trash is his Seventh Seal. I hope Grindhouse find a window in their hectic schedule (?) and put this one out some day... Yeah, I have shed much tears over dumping my tapes - by sheer fluke, I found my old pre-cert editions of Nightmares In A Damaged Brain, The Crazies and Shivers back at my parents' house last year and I was thrilled to bits - I thought they were long gone. I often thought of putting together a pre-cert collection but I just don't have the funds...

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  8. Nice one, Nightmares is quite effective too, though not as impressed with that on the second viewing, similar to Don't go in the House's 'explanation' of psycho's childhood trauma. Yet another deranged,internal experience of a film... A pre cert collection is a great idea.

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  9. I want to see this movie, too. I hope i's on DVD soon!

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