If there’s any exploitation director that deserves a critical re-evaluation, it’s Herschell Gordon Lewis. Over the course of two decades, Lewis dabbled in every genre of low-budget filmmaking and even invented one with his 1963 “gore” film Blood Feast. Many film critics tends to dismiss Lewis as being one of the worst directors of all time. I would argue that, far from being the worst, Lewis was a unique filmmaker who, working with low budgets and mainstream support, always managed to create movies that had their own unique cinematic aesthetic. Much like the great French director Jean Rollin, Lewis made dream-like films that — though initially dismissed for their lack of slick production values — have managed to survive the test of time and remain as interesting and oddly watchable now as the day they were first released. That certainly not the accomplishment of “the worst director of all time.”
(Add to that, the worst director of all time is Garry Marshall. Seriously, New Year’s Eve will be forever tainted, thanks to Mr. Marshall.)
Though Lewis is best known for his “gore” films like Blood Feast and the Gruesome Twosome, he dabbled in just about every genre of film. Last night, I watched one of his non-gore films, Scum of the Earth. Filmed in 6 days in 1963, Scum of the Earth was released at the same time as Lewis’s better-known Blood Feast.
“Only an alert society can protect itself from those who prey on the weak — the scum of the earth.” — Closing Narration of Scum of the Earth.
Like many of the classic grindhouse film, Scum of the Earth presents itself as a warning to mainstream society about the evil lurking just underneath the facade of normalcy. In this case, that evil is the “dirty picture” underground and the film starts with a montage of various “teenagers” selling pictures of a topless woman. I like to think that, with this little pre-credits sequence, Herschell Gordon Lewis establishes that Scum of the Earth is nothing less than a black-and-white, low-budget version of The Wire.
Much like The Wire and Traffic, Scum of the Earth goes from showing us how the product is distributed to showing us how and why the product comes into being in the first place. Mr. Lang (Lawrence Wood) is a cheerful man who spends his time sitting in a small office and sending out his henchmen, evil Larry (Mal Arnold) and the moronic Ajax (Craig Maudsplay), to distribute explicit photos of the innocent victims that he lures into his sordid web. (Indeed, they are truly the scum of the earth…) The pictures are taken by disillusioned artist Harmon (Thomas Kerwin) and most of them feature Sandy (played by Sandy Sinclair). It’s quickly revealed that both Sandy and Harmon hate what they’ve become but they’re both being blackmailed by the jovial Mr. Lang.
However, Sandy’s pictures are no longer selling as well so Lang offers her a proposition. Sandy can retire from the business if she recruits a replacement. For the rest of the 72-minute film, we watch as Sandy and Harmon recruit innocent Kim (played all wide-eyed and breathless by Vicki Miles) who desperately needs 500 dollars to be able to pay her college tuition. Oddly enough, that’s the same way I paid my college tuition which, incidentally, was a lot more than 500 dollars.
Anyway, Kim soon finds herself in over head because 1) she’s incredibly stupid and 2) she’s dealing with the scum of the earth. If Kim stop posing for topless pictures, she knows that copies will be sent to her kindly but slow-witted father. (“You’re the best father I ever had!” Kim tells her dad at one point.) Even worse, Ajax and Larry want to take some pictures of their own with her. Whatever is a girl to do!?
As a director Herschell Gordon Lewis has always struck me as being a bit of American Jess Franco. Much like Franco, he made film that can charitably be called terrible. Between performances that ranged from histrionic to living dead and a filming technique that seemed to mostly consist of little more than turning on the camera, it’s easy to dismiss Lewis and his films. It’s only on repeat viewings — after you’ve gotten a previous taste of the Lewis aesthetic — that you start to notice that quirky details and the occasionally inspired visuals that give evidence to the fact that Lewis does not deserve his reputation for being one of the worst directors of all time. Even in an admittedly lesser work like Scum of the Earth, there’s enough intentional strangeness to hold your interest. To cite one example, the villainous Mr. Lang appears to love toys and he gives quite a few of his evil speeches while looking down at two nodding bobble heads. As static as the majority of the film is, the final chase (in which two police officers pursue the portly Mr. Lang through a rather slummy strip mall) is a lot of fun to watch. The best visual in the film comes when Kim is posing topless for the first time and Lewis gives us a shot, from her point of view, of the oppressively bright lamps shining down on her and casting the rest of the studio into total darkness. It’s a scene that is full of genuine menace.
The cast is full of actors who will be recognizable to anyone who has seen any of Lewis’s other films. Out of the cast, William Kerwin comes the closest to giving an actual performance, bringing a real sense of sadness and regret to the role of Harmon the Photographer. Kerwin also appeared in Blood Feast, playing the dedicated cop who pursues the evil Faud Ramses who was played by yet another Scum of the Earth alum, Mal Arnold.
In Scum, Arnold plays Lang’s henchman, Larry. In 1963, Arnold was 30 years old and he looked like he was 40. However, he was cast here as a character who tells everyone that he meets that he’s under 17 and therefore, he doesn’t have to worry about going to prison for distributing dirty pictures. Or, as Arnold puts it, “Not me, Daddy-O! I’m a minor!” What makes this especially amusing is that in Blood Feast (which was, again, released that same year), Arnold is playing a character who is 5,000 years old. What also makes Arnold’s performance as Larry enjoyable to those of us who are familiar with Lewis’s cinematic career is that Arnold essentially gives the same over-the-top performance here that he would later give in Blood Feast. I kept expecting him to ask Kim if she wanted an Egyptian feast.
However, the film truly belongs to Lawrence Wood, who plays Mr. Lang with such an insane joy that it’s impossible not to root for the sleazy old pornographer. Whether he’s giggling as a toy monkey somersaults across his desk or he’s politely explaining why nothing is actually his fault, Wood appears to be having such a good time that it’s just infectious. Wood’s best moment comes when Kim expresses some reluctance about modeling for more pictures and suddenly, Mr. Lang starts to shout at her about how she (and all the other kids) are hypocrites. “You’re damaged merchandise and this is a fire sale!” he shouts as sweat streams down his face and Lewis zooms in for a close up of his mouth, “You’ll do what I tell ya!” Wood screams, “Do you hear!?” It’s a scene of lunatic genius that, in the best tradition of both Herschell Gordon Lewis and the grindhouse in general, comes out of nowhere and is all the more effective because of it.
For this scene alone, Scum of the Earth deserves to be seen.