Reel Sex: Sexploitation and the ‘Scum of the Earth’


“Deep down inside, you’re dirty. Do you hear me, dirty? You’re damaged goods, and this is a fire sale.” These vile sentences shouted out by modeling agency owner Mr. Lang (Lawrence Aberwood) during the heated climax of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1963 nudie-cutie Scum of the Earth reflect not only the understandable fear felt by naïve model Kim (Allison Louise Downe) who is begging the depraved Mr. Lang for her naked pictures, but also the real life fear of being exposed against your will. Exploitation films of any era depict society’s underbelly, offering viewers a voyeuristic look at a frightening world. Just like with horror, these films show truly discomforting subject through a lens of entertainment.

The exploitation films of the 1960s toyed with taboos and boundaries in a way never seen in films before or since. With the evolution of cinema road shows and drive-ins, teens and adults had more freedom when it came to viewing films out of the reach of the slowly imploding Hays Code. This was the time of gore, sex, drugs, and unabashed pleasure in film. The country was coming out of the Cold War and heading straight for Vietnam. This was the time for society reflection, and filmmakers were more than happy to give violence-hungry audiences something to chew on.

While the combination of sex and violence was not a new concept before 1960s B movies, films by exploitation auteurs Doris Wishman and Lewis and writer/producer David F. Friedman pulled their stories from a dark, sinister place and presented them as glimpses into fantasy worlds. Many of their films are challenging to find, however Netflix does offer compilations of their more noteworthy works. Luckily for you I am still suckered into recommendations by the big red giant, and spent the past weekend watching a double feature of Scum of the Earth and Lee Frost’s The Defilers. Two films the world is fortunate to have in it, especially if you enjoy watching beautiful girls get abused by psychopaths. I mean, who doesn’t? (Hopefully there are no hands being raised right now.)

“Dirty” doesn’t even begin to describe 1965’s The Defilers. If a film made with a miniscule budget, strict restrictions on content, and set in the time of free love can turn a stomach 45 years later, “dirty” is only scratching the surface of adjectives. The film opens with two young, affluent friends Carl (Byron Mabe) and Jameison (Jerome Eden) kissing and groping a bevy of beauties in their convertible en route to the beach. Once there, the heavy petting continues into the night. Both men clearly use and abuse these weak-minded, sexually charged girls, getting their kicks and then leaving them when they start wanting more. Nothing we haven’t seen before or since. But the tone changes quickly when a still clothed Carl confidently undresses his lady and bites her so hard she yelps. And not in the fun way.

Carl exposes himself as rough and sadistic when it comes to women, while Jameison enjoys pleasing women even if it is against their will initially. Oddly, this dichotomy of sadism comes into play when Carl and Jameison decide to kidnap their new neighbor Jane (Mai Jansson) and turn her into their sex slave. Yes, you read that right. Sex slave. In 1965. They both find her icy and in need of a controlling hand. And once she rejects their advances they take her, lock her in a rat and bug infested basement and rape her until there is nothing left behind her eyes. Frost cuts away from the actual sex act, however he does keep the camera trained to Jane’s face as her piercing eyes glass over during her time with both Carl and the reluctant Jameison. Although she eventually gains her freedom, the film is not concerned with telling a survivor’s story. Rather it wants to show the disgusting nature of the most grotesque people, and the consequences of using sex for power not for pleasure.

Just as The Defilers focused on exposing sex as a power play, Scum of the Earth went a step further by depicting the spiral of sexual victims and their unfortunate role in the defiling of other individuals. Here we have a nude model so desperate to get out of the game she agrees to help her boss Mr. Lang find fresh talent. Her first recruit is the young Kim Sherwood (who is also on the receiving end of the above tirade), a naïve girl fooled by the glamour of modeling and the charm of photographer Harmon Johnson (William Kerwin as Thomas Sweetwood). What starts off innocently enough with catalogue photo shoots quickly turns into snapping images of Kim topless without her knowledge. Harmon’s photos allow Lang to blackmail her into performing one last, lesbian themed shoot for his highest paying clients.

While Scum of the Earth is a film about nude modeling, it never shows fully naked women. Instead it cuts away to shadows or the unseen villain behind the camera stripping Kim to her core. Lewis is ingenious with his camera, holding on to a bland visual longer than comfortable just so the audience can hear the fear in Kim’s voice, taking cues from his previous gore films. He knows audiences are more afraid of what they can’t see and he constantly uses this trope to keep the audience squirming for relief. It’s not a well known film, but Scum of the Earth is cinematically important for titillating creepy sexual desire, holding a mirror up to the perverse nature of Exploitation audiences, and having a happy ending rare in this sub-genre.

1960s Exploitation film and its extensions (roughies, nudies, etc) run the gamut when it comes to quality story and filmmaking, but they do offering a very brutal and intriguing sexual and violent glimpse into the world not shown in Hollywood films.

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