I watch a surprising amount of prison movies. It’s not that I have any special affinity towards prison, but the setting makes for an easy method to tell tales of violence, drama, and survival against harsh odds often imposed by other people. Prison makes for an exploitative arena, though the films that focus on it, the ones not being used simply for perversion’s sake, tend to be extremely critical of the institution. We can have our Chained Heat pics while also criticizing the system and showing how ridiculous and terrible it is. But how often do these films focus on the triumph of the human spirit and the quest for redemption? I’d argue most do, from a horror film like Prison about a ghostly revenge by the wrongly accused to the obviously-titled Shawshank Redemption to the steel nerve of the prisoners leaving in Escape from Alcatraz.
If they’re not in this redemptive camp or not being used for shameless eroticism, they then go hardcore in the direction of the prisoners being monsters, that no matter how bad the system is, the things are worse. Sure, the prison shrink in The Silence of the Lambs is a self-serving prick, but he’s overseeing a ward that includes Hannibal Lector. Officers Raymond Tango and Gabriel Cash find a horde of psychotic wannabe-cop killers inside when they’re locked up in Tango & Cash. The Riddick series is specifically about a super criminal who can pretty much kill anyone he wants to and escape with little effort no matter how tough of a supermax he’s stuck in. So where are the films that explore the institution and how it has dehumanized everyone involved to the point it’s all gut wrenching nastiness?
Carlin is a teenager being sent along with Angel and Davis, two other kids, to a borstal, a British prison for boys. While Carlin is doing a sentence for thievery, he’s also being transferred for assaulting a prison guard at his previous location, an act he claims was in self-defense. The guards at the new facility take a special interest in him immediately because of this, and they give him hell for it, as does the gang leader of his wing under the guards’ orders. So Carlin keeps his head down and his mouth shut as best he can until the time to strike, and then he beats his way through the top with sudden attacks and armed assaults. He befriends another prisoner along the way, a shoeless “vegetarian” who likes to crack wise and endure tough conditions just to screw with the prison system and opines openly about its failures and dehumanizing nature for both prisoners and staff. As Carlin fights his way to the top and Archer gets in trouble for his views, Angel just keeps his head down, and Davis receives the worst treatment of anyone in prison, eventually leading to several excruciating scenes back to back near the end that will whither the soul.
The film uses shocking moments of sudden violence, fear, suicide, abuse, brutality, racism, and rape to savage the prison system, and the effect is one that doesn’t so much condemn the prisoners as it does the entire system that has turned both boys and state employees into open sadists willing to do whatever it takes, savoring their own cruelty, or breaking miserably. The worst tendencies are encouraged for the purposes of control, with dehumanization the primary tactic. Violent release is lambasted yet encouraged; talking and sharing is praised, yet all the boys know that to talk is to bring harsh punishments and harsher retribution down. The betterment of the kids inside is a sick joke, and instead the worst of humanity reigns. It’s a prison version of Lord of the Flies, only this time under the watchful eye of adults who claim to disapprove while silently nodding their heads because they’re also trapped in their own systems and can’t escape.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the film garnered banning attempts, particularly as it released in the height of Britain’s moral quandary and panic over media. The Video Nasty era was in full swing, and while Scum didn’t make its way on the list (almost no British films did, marking the claims of “morality” as a mere protectionist stunt), it stirred controversy like a stick in a sewage pit. First there was a made-for-TV play for the BBC; this was withdrawn. The play was then made into a film in 1979, but it wasn’t allowed for air until 1983, by which time the borstal system it was lambasting had been reformed. Still, lawsuits came from Mary Whitehouse, generally seen as the architect for the Video Nasties crusade. While Whitehouse eventually lost on appeal, the experience led to Scum adopting the tagline, “The film they tried to ban.”
Scum has since taken on a cult status, and it’s the kind of film that will turn the stomach. There are two movies in particular I recalled while watching it; the prison rape scene reminded me of the unflinching cruelty of the rape sequence in I Spit on Your Grave. And the despairing all-is-lost tone of Davis’ tragic end reminded me of Flyora uselessly discharging his rifle over and over again at a photo of Hitler at the end of Come and See. These are movies that are emotionally devastating and leave lasting imprints on the brain, and Scum fits right in as the kind of film which will ring you out like a dishrag.
As shocking as it is, it’s also worth noting that the movie was made up of mainly teenage actors who were little beyond amateurs at the time. Several for the film were from the play, though that’s where they got started. Most notably, Carlin is played by Ray Winstone in his cinematic debut. Winstone is the quintessential British tough, the kind of guy who you would expect to find in a bar having a drink with Bob Hoskins while they watch Vinnie Jones rearrange some poor dude’s face. When he pulls out a metal pipe to beat the hell out of someone and leave them in a puddle of their own blood, you completely believe it. And then there is Mick Ford, who plays Archer, the voice of ethics and reason in a generally unreasonable film. Ford continued to act but also managed to establish himself as an acclaimed television writer. While he isn’t as well known to Americans, British television would not be the same without him.
So, ready to get your teeth knocked in and your heart ripped out? Then go watch Scum. And remember that I’m the daddy around here.