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Our review of The Alan Clarke Collection, published October 13th, 2004, is also available.
"I'm the Daddy now!"
A freakish cross-breed between Tony Richardson's somber The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Kinji Fukasaku's ferocious Battle Royale, Scum caused quite the uproar in conservative Britain upon its release in 1979. Created for BBC television, Scum was promptly shelved by the network, which found it too despondent, bleak, and anti-establishment to release. Undaunted, the filmmakers reshot the project as a feature film two years later, making it even more brutal and nihilistic, a savage attack on the Borstal system of young youth offenders which became an instant underground classic.
Cult fans and collectors will be thrilled to learn that this DVD release of Scum contains not only the theatrical release, but the rarely-seen BBC version, with many of the same actors playing the same roles in both versions.
Facts of the Case
When a new boy, Carlin (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast), gets transferred to a new Borstal, his arrival is greeted with apprehension by staff and inmates alike. In his last Borstal, Carlin had assaulted an officer, which immediately places him in unfavorable standing with the staff, who take special pleasure in beating and humiliating him to show him who is in charge. Likewise, the Borstal's "Daddy," a fierce boy named Pongo, makes sure Carlin knows his place from the start with a few solid beatings.
Carlin makes friends with an inmate named Archer (Mick Ford, How to Get Ahead in Advertising), who seems totally out of place. A quiet, introspective youth, he fights the system in his own small little ways, intimidating the screws (authorities) with his icy demeanor and intimidating intellect and taunting the authorities with bizarre personal habits, requests for vegetarian food, Dostoevsky novels, and his interest in Mecca. Since he never resorts to anger or violence, the screws have no idea how to deal with him.
Carlin, on the other hand, takes in the animosity with a quiet fury, refusing to be drawn into making a move against either the Daddy or the screws (officers) until the time is right. Carlin used to be a Daddy in his last Borstal and plans to be one again. Mercilessly, he removes Pongo from power and begins to run the institution with an iron fist, turning the entire institution into an unlit powder keg…
Scum has some downright disturbing imagery and violence, often frightening in their intensity, a gut-wrenching, Lord of the Flies youthful fury mixed with healthy doses of Orwellian anti-establishment. Once we enter the Borstal, the film never leaves. It is merciless in its presentation, refusing to flinch away from violence, abuse, foul language, and the horrors of a repressive, repulsive, and draconian system of reform full of racism, humiliation, suicide, and sexual abuse.
At the time of its release, Scum turned quite a few heads, but its timing was rather unfortunate. When the BBC version was made, the Borstal system was still alive and well in Great Britain, but by the time the feature film reached the market, the system was in the process of being dismantled. While time has been fairly kind to the film, much of the emotional impact and violence—groundbreaking at the time—is rendered irrelevant by cultural barriers and social reform. After all, Borstals never quite made it to North America. Though the blood and gore seem almost tame by today's standards, the violence in the film is still quite profound and disturbing, if only for its sheer unrelenting nature.
There is not a single benevolent character in the film to be found, save the lone female presence in the film…the Matron. She is the only reasonable and halfway gentle soul in the film, despite giving off that creepy Nurse Ratched vibe, and she only seems nice to the boys in comparison to the violence and abuse hurled upon them by the "pigs." Between the rampaging beatings delivered by fellow cons, the rape and sexual assault, and the overwhelming and nauseating amounts of racism and belittling, Scum simply never lets up its verbal and visual assault until the last frame of the film, save for one odd sequence. The only noticeable break in the violence comes from a scene between an officer and Archer that drags on longer than it probably should; a sharing of personal philosophy and ideology rebukes the Borstal system and debates the merits of the British criminal system regarding youths. In a film so uncompromising in its violence and self-destruction, this introspective sequence is the only vehicle available to add moral fiber and backbone to the film, but the change in gears from violent exploitation to political rumination is like accidentally mistaking reverse for fifth gear on the highway. It's halting, to say the least.
Between Archer and Carlin, Scum attacks the hypocrisy of the Borstal system with the subtlety of a battleaxe. In an attempt to steer youths away from violence and disobedience, the humiliation and aggression forced upon them in the Borstal only reinforces the innate anger and repression stirring in Carlin, which eventually erupts. Archer attempts to find small and subtle ways to disobey and express his desires, which go completely under the radar of the officers, who only know how to handle flagrantly disobedient and violent youths. All around them, black inmates are beaten and have racial epitaphs hurled at them, while weaker boys are tortured and raped for sport and often commit suicide. To the officers, the young boys were scum or worse than scum, bugs to be stamped out beneath their feet and ruled with an iron hand in an attempt to humiliate and scare them into straight behavior. The system utterly destroyed the weaker children, leaving them broken or dead, and aggravated the violent and strong offenders, amplifying their hatred and animosity towards authority; the bitter irony is brought to the point of exploitative hyperbole in Carlin's brutal rise to power, as unsympathetic as it is merciless.
Restored from the original masters, Scum has an excellent presentation, considering the film's age and operating budget. Though there is still some noticeable print damage and white spotting throughout the film, the transfer has been cleaned up nicely, with deep black levels, decent sharpness, and good grain control. Colors are muted, but slightly saturated in the reds.
As for audio, there is no soundtrack or score in Scum; we are forced to listen to the sounds of life in a Borstal with no distraction or reprieve. In addition to the original mono presentation, both a Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 Surround track are available; all of these tracks sound very similar due to the film's largely central channel presentation and weak bass response. The 5.1 only distinguishes itself by a small margin during scenes of chaos and ambient noises, when the back channels stretch their legs slightly.
The second disc contains a delight for cult aficionados and film purists alike: the original BBC produced version of Scum, which differs from its counterpart in production quality, small casting changes, and certain sequences. It is quite fascinating to watch the film progress from the BBC version to the theatrical version, observing the transition from stage play to made-for-television adaptation to theatrical film. The amount of violence and gore increases exponentially between each transition, but certain elements never made the transition to feature film. Most noticeably absent from the final film is a homosexual relationship between Carlin and another inmate, an omission that Minton later regretted. The alternate version is certainly a treasure trove for fans of the original broadcast (which did eventually make it to air), but lacks the production values, exceptional acting performances, and intensity of the theatrical version. The audio quality and transfer for the BBC version has not seen the restoration work of the theatrical version, to say to least; full of grain, hiss, print damage and spotting, the presentation is fairly atrocious, but certainly watchable.
Both versions of the film come with excellent full-length audio commentaries—the theatrical version with star Ray Winstone, and the BBC version with Phil Daniels, David Threlfall, and producer Margaret Matheson, with selected scene commentary by Ray Winstone. Winstone's commentary in particular is a riot and a half to listen to; it's a ranting, bitter anti-establishment tirade mixed smartly with details from the shoot and set memories. Awesome. Other extras include a 17-minute interview with producer Clive Parsons and writer Roy Minton, still galleries, and the original theatrical trailer…a fantastic offering.
One surprisingly savvy decision on the part of Blue Underground is the inclusion of English subtitles on both versions of Scum, a feature which assists deciphering the complex and thick youth slang that often borders on unintelligible. Normally, one doesn't give much thought to subtitles, but trust me, they come in handy here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Scum's terrorizing bleakness makes for the stuff of underground and cult classics, but fails to actually accomplish anything relevant. As previously mentioned, by the time Scum was reshot as a feature film and released to the public, the Borstal system in Britain had been abandoned, making the social relevance of the film somewhat diluted.
Yes, people have a soft spot for this kind of brutality in cinema, but it usually has a point behind it; some motivation for its uncompromising violence. Too often, Scum seems violent for the sake of being violent, without any rhyme or reason other than to shock and horrify audiences. After a while, one loses patience with such juvenile behavior—no pun intended.
Scum loses some of its shock value over the passing of time, but still remains an endearing cult classic, a triumphant merging of British social realism and exploitation cinema. With both versions available on DVD together, Blue Underground has done a fantastic job releasing the film to the North American masses.
I'm just glad I went to school in Canada. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Scum (BBC Version)
Perp Profile, Scum (BBC Version)
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, Scum (BBC Version)
• Audio Commentary with actors Phil Daniels, David Threlfall, and producer Margaret Matheson
Scales of Justice, Scum (Theatrical Version)
Perp Profile, Scum (Theatrical Version)
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, Scum (Theatrical Version)
• Audio Commentary with actor Ray Winstone
Review content copyright © 2006 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.