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The film tells the story of a young offender named Carlin as he arrives at the institution, and his rise through violence and self-protection to the top of the inmates' pecking order, purely as a tool to survive.
For more about Scum and the Scum Blu-ray release, see Scum Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 5, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Ray Winstone, Mick Ford (I), Julian Firth, Phil Daniels, Philip Jackson, John Grillo
Director: Alan Clarke (I)
» See full cast & crew
Scum Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 5, 2013
British cinema's social realism movement got a firm punch in the kidney with the 1979 release of Alan Clarke's Scum, a harsh indictment of the country's corrupt borstal reformatory system for delinquent youths. Two years prior, Clarke—primarily a teleplay director—made the film for BBC broadcast, but the powers that were banned it before it ever aired on the grounds of it being too violent and thematically controversial. So, what did Clarke do? He scraped together the funds to remake Scum as a theatrical feature, and made it even more violent and culturally incisive, laying out the explicit charge that borstal "schools" are fundamentally dehumanizing institutions, not just for the inmates, but also their just- as-troubled wardens. There are shades of A Clockwork Orange here, and more than a little of Lindsay Anderson's If..., but Scum is its own cult classic entity, a sinewy bit of low-budget filmmaking that uses graphic depictions of rape and suicide to shock viewers into social awareness. Though the government ultimately abolished the borstal model in 1982—to what extent the film affected this decision is up for debate—Scum is still compelling today as an illustration of the hypocrisy and abuses of power that occur inside any punitive system.
The film's staying power might also have to do with the fact that it provided the first starring role for a very boyish-looking Ray Winstone, who would go on to become one of the U.K.'s most recognizable "tough guy" actors, especially after his international fame-making turn opposite Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. Here, he plays the teenaged Carlin, a "hard case" who assaulted an officer and is sent to a remote borstal with two other new inmates—Davis (Julian Firth), a diminutive and easily bullied runaway, and Angel (Alrick Riley), a young black car thief who will suffer extreme bigotry along with the usual reform school torments. The head warders, Mr. Sands (John Judd) and Mr. Greaves (Philip Jackson), greet their incoming charges with verbal assaults and body blows, but the biggest threat is from veteran prisoner "Pongo" Banks (John Blundell), the "daddy" of A-Block, who operates a black-market currency exchange, lords over the rec room, and dispatches his minions to rough up the newbies, all with the unspoken consent of the guards. Carlin just wants to do his time in peace, but the increasing aggression from Banks and his crew make this impossible. Fed up, he puts a snooker ball in a sock, cracks one of the thugs in the skull, and then runs upstairs to bash Pongo's head against a bathroom sink, effectively proving his dominance and taking control. "I'm the daddy now," he screams—the foremost of the film's many, many quotable lines—and soon, Carlin is working the system, lauded by the prison's governor (Peter Howell) as a "natural leader."
In contrast, the film also follows a non-violent vegetarian atheist named Archer (Mick Ford), who prefers to be subversive, as he puts it, in "my own little way." He refuses to wear leather boots on principle, and demands an extra ration of potatoes instead of meat. He writes "I AM HAPPY" on a wall he's been ordered to paint, petitions to remove Crime and Punishment from the list of books he's not allowed to read, and he raises the hackles of the staunchly Anglican governor by claiming that he's recently been "strongly drawn to Mecca, sir." Carlin may be the protagonist, but Archer—who comes to be his best friend—is by far the film's most memorable character. Smarter than all the guards put together, he's an intellect with a philosophical grasp of his comically absurd situation. When one of the warders sits down with him for a cup of tea, Archer engages him in a conversation that's essentially the film's thesis statement, asserting that "the punitive system does not work," and asking, "How can anyone build a character inside a regime based on deprivation?" He finally gets himself into trouble when he suggests that the guard's own human potential has been stunted by his career-long role as a lowly middle-management authority figure, just as imprisoned as the inmates he keeps in line. Carlin and the guards may be molded by the insane pressures of the system, but Archer has found a release valve—the freedom of his mind.
As viewers, we could use our own escape, because—at times—Scum is very difficult to watch, confronting us with the sordid realities of borstal life. The racism. The might-makes-right hierarchy. The unfairness and loneliness. Then, of course, there's the violence in its many forms. The punch- ups and busted heads are commonplace—we're used to these kinds of altercations in the movies—but what really packs a wallop is the graphic self- harm and sexual abuse, filmed unflinchingly in scenes that stretch on and on until we feel the full, soul-sucking intensity of the characters' pain. Slit wrists spurting arterial blood leave us woozy. The oh no, what have I done regret that follows is bracing. The sight of the most defenseless young prisoner being gang-raped in a greenhouse—while a warden looks on with a smirk through the window—is practically unbearable. As it should be. Despite its grimy title and provocative subject matter, Scum isn't really an exploitation flick. The violence isn't glorified, the sex doesn't titillate. This is an intentionally ugly, purposefully uncomfortably film. And yet—and this is a big and yet—it's made with real artistry, from the fluid tracking shots though the claustrophobic hallways to the raw performances of the relatively inexperienced actors. Playing with tone, Clarke knowns when to push and when to pull back—peppering in some wry comedy to keep the film from being too stark—and playwright Roy Minton's script is rich in characterization and language. You may initially watch Scum to be shocked, but you re-watch it to pick up on all the subtleties that make it more than just another "video nasty."
Scum Blu-ray, Video Quality
Many Kino-Lorber releases get the "as is" treatment—with little-to-no significant cleanup work—but Scum arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC- encoded transfer that's nearly pristine, remastered from the original 35mm negative in 2012 by Pinewood Studio's restoration team. They've done terrific work, removing scratches, spots, and bits of debris without compromising the integrity of the image or its inherent grain structure, which is untouched by digital noise reduction and edge enhancement. The picture looks warm and organic—like a film print, not some over-digitized bastardization—and the lone distractions are a few errant white specks missed in the cleaning pass. (Compared to a lot of Kino's recent Redemption Films-label releases—which are typically scratched and dotted throughout—Scum is a revelation.) Clarity seems true to source and drastically improved—if you've seen standard definition versions of the film—with cleaner lines and more finely resolved textures in faces, hair, and clothing. Color is balanced and consistent too, with good density/saturation and stable contrast. If only all of Kino's classic titles could look this good.
Scum Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There are two audio options on the disc, a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 mono mix. Since the film was originally mixed monaurally, purists will prefer the latter, but the default multi-channel remaster certainly isn't obtrusive. The expanded sound design is limited to some light ambience and effects in the rear speakers—footsteps, cafeteria clamor, etc.—and you rarely even notice it. Both mixes have a decent sense of clarity for a film of this age and genre, although there are a few scenes where it's obvious that the actors' voices have been ADR'd in. Still, dialogue is clear and understandable, and there are no major hisses, pops, or crackles. Sound plays a minimal role in Scum—you'll quickly notice that there's no score—so these two tracks gets high marks just for doing exactly what they need to do.The only shortcoming here is that Kino hasn't included any subtitle options, which would be helpful for following some of the more unusual anglo slang.
Scum Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Scum Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
It may not be as celebrated as the social realist films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but Alan Clarke's Scum was and is just as vital, a gritty juvie drama that set out to expose the cruelty and dehumanizing effect of Britain's borstal rehabilitation system. Though the borstal days are long gone, the film is still a powerful experience—shocking, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking. It's a shame that Kino couldn't have included the original BBC teleplay version of Scum here too, but otherwise, this is a fantastic Blu-ray release, with a restored and remastered transfer, an audio commentary with star Ray Winstone, and several interviews with the cast and crew. Highly recommended!
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Scum Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Alan Clarke's Scum Detailed - May 14, 2013
Kino Video have detailed their upcoming Blu-ray release of Alan Clarke's Scum (1979), starring Ray Winstone, John Blundell, Mick Ford, and Julian Firth. The release will be available for purchase online and in stores across the United States on June 4th.
• Upcoming Kino Lorber Releases - March 15, 2013
Kino Lorber and their sublabels have revealed that they are planning to bring to Blu-ray four titles: Howard Higgin's Hell House (1932), John Cromwell's Of Human Bondage (1934), Alan Clarke's Scum (1979), and Nicolo Dominick Gullo and Jameel Saleem's Fear Not ...
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