Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Poor White Trash Part II (1974)

... aka: Death is a Family Affair
... aka: Poor White Trash
... aka: Poor White Trash II
... aka: Scum of the Earth

Directed by:
S.F. Brownrigg

In 1956, Peter Graves starred in a swampland drama called Bayou, which ended up tanking in theaters... that is until 1961 when M.A. Ripps got his hands on it and then re-released it under the new title Poor White Trash in 1961. What's in a title? A lot it seems, as the new moniker turned what was a bomb into a moneymaking workhorse that played Southern drive-ins for years as a second feature. Nearly two decades later the same marketing technique was applied to S.F. Brownrigg's Scum of the Earth. While "Scum" is a great title on its own, it was already used for a 1963 Herschell Gordon Lewis flick about a nude photography racket and didn't quite pack 'em in on that name alone. To boost ticket sales for the 1976 reissue (and perhaps trick people into either watching it a second time or assuming it was a follow-up to the first), it was given the new title of Poor White Trash Part II and ended up on Variety's list of top-grossing films of the year. The film also retained that same title when it finally appeared on VHS and is pretty much solely known by the Trash title these days.

Soon after arriving at her vacation cabin, newlywed Helen Fraser (Norma Moore) finds her husband Paul (Joel Colodner) dead with an axe buried in his chest. Someone has also stolen their car keys so she's forced to flee into the woods. The first person she comes across is slovenly drunk Odis Pickett (Gene Ross), who claims he doesn't know anything about the murder and puts her mind at ease by informing her "I ain't killed nobody... lately." Having no other choice, Helen follows Odis back to his shack, thinking she'll be able to call the police. (As if they have a phone; they don't even have running water!) When she gets there, she meets the rest of the Pickett clan: Odis' very pregnant wife Emmy (Ann Stafford), his hateful / slutty daughter Sarah (Camilla Carr) and his incredibly dumb son Bo (Charlie Dell), who talks kind of like Forrest Gump. Tensions are already high in the family for a variety of reasons and things get even worse when they discover the same psycho who killed Paul is lurking around outside. Perhaps it's even someone in the Pickett clan.

This has all of the necessary ingredients for a good hillbilly horror flick: grubby rednecks in overalls spouting terrible grammar ("Looky here what I done brung home for supper!"), filthy living conditions, incest, moonshine drunk directly from mason jars, rape, possum for din din and a series of bloody murders including a neck pierced on an iron fence, a barbed wire strangling and a gunshot to the eyeball. If the director has one notable strength compared to his contemporaries, it's the ability to get good performances from his actors. He did it with his previous film DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973) and he's done it again here with a solid group of performers all well-cast in their roles. But what really puts this a notch above similar efforts is the low key and somewhat eerie backwoods atmosphere, achieved in part by no budget minimalism and lack of location change, and the attention paid to characters. Quite a tasteless and tactless group we have here!

The Odis character is an immensely unlikable brute who guzzles 'shine the entire time and constantly berates his kids and poor knocked-up wife; justifying his eventual rape of Helen by telling his old lady that he "don't want to poke an old blowed-up balloon like you." I would call the daughter character a 5 dollar whore except she only charges 1 dollar and spreads her legs for all the local guys for pocket change so she can buy things like lipstick and glamour magazines. However, she's tight enough with her pa to give it to him for free! The son is a slow-speaking half-wit who mostly elicits feelings of annoyance from the family. The big surprise in the cast is the unknown Stafford as Emmy the wife; a dumb but goodhearted door mat who was traded off to Odis by her own father to relieve a debt and who eventually becomes a bit motherly toward Norma. Stafford provides a perfect counter-balance to the over-the-top antics of the rest of the family and creates a surprisingly warm character.

On the down side, there's not really much of a plot, the music score is a little inappropriate / annoying at times and the surprise twist at the end is clumsily executed, but it's all entertaining enough and has that wonderfully grubby backwoods regional feel to it that Hollywood horror films frequently try and almost always fail to capture.

It's now been over 30 years since this received its first and, I believe, only American VHS release courtesy of Magnum Entertainment. It also received an 80s video release in the UK on the Intervision label as just Poor White Trash (minus the II). In 2006, Grindhouse Releasing acquired the rights and, in 2009, told Bloody Disgusting they were working on a special edition DVD. It wouldn't be until 2014 that they unveiled some of the extras. Now here it is 2018, nearly a decade after the initial announcement, and it's still "coming soon."

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