Cast: Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth, Phil Daniels
Extras: Commentary Track, Interviews, Selected Scene Commentary, Still and Poster Gallery, Trailer
A sobering account of life in a juvenile detention center, the "Scum: 2-Disc Limited Edition" DVD set is a grim, thoroughly depressing journey that hits the viewer in the gut like a sock full of billiard balls. Chronicling the violent and degrading experiences of the young men who inhabit a Borstal (a British reform institution), "Scum" is a scathing indictment of Margaret Thatcher-era reformation policies. Harsh and uncompromising, the film details the system of fear and violence that such institutions instill in their prisoners.
Originally conceived as a made-for-television film for the BBC, "Scum" was pulled from airing due to its controversial subject matter. Fast forward two years later, as Director Alan Clarke re-assembled many of the cast and crew to shoot a theatrical version of the movie. Essentially remaking the previous telefilm, Clarke was able to create a more stark, violent and unflinching look at the extremely flawed system. Blue Underground has put together an exceptional 2-Disc edition of the film, including the theatrical version and the long-banned televised version, with a nice set of extras to boot. For clarity reasons, I'll focus on the theatrical version, since the BBC version is essentially the same film (albeit grainier, in full frame and without some of the same actors). Both have identical scenes and dialogue, although the theatrical version is more violent, has harsher language and is more polished.
"Scum" wastes no time immersing us into the lives of the incarcerated youths. We see three young men, Carlin (Ray Winstone), Angel (Alrick Riley) and Davis (Julian Firth) as they're herded into the detention center. Immediately, they are berated by the administrators and assaulted for their misconceived insolence. Quickly, the newbie's become accustomed to the in-house politics, with roaming bullies creating a narrow-minded world built on fear and intimidation. A cyclical pattern is established, as the kids with the most influence and power prey over the weaker ones, while the administrators give the aggressor's free reign to control the fearful. Impending dread is created, as we continually witness these kids suffer, their cries for help going unheard and ignored.
"Scum" doesn't have a narrative thrust per se; it more or less just hops back and forth between different scenes, detailing the predicaments of various characters. Along with the physical threats of violence, kids are exposed to suicide, racism and sexual assault. Delving deep into the realms of depravity, "Scum" pulls no punches in its depiction of wayward juveniles and institutionalized corruption. There is an air of hopelessness to this saga, as there is no room in this cruel environment for rehabilitation or constructive development. With the House Master (John Judd) telling Angel "All you are is a number," it becomes clear that the goal of the Borstal is to strip away any semblance of individuality and compassion.
Bringing this infuriating docudrama to life is Ray Winstone, who is perfectly cast as the seemingly calm Carlin. There's an anger that seethes under every pore in his body and it's just a matter of time before his kettle blows. Already a target by the officers (due to his assault on one of their own at another Borstal) and the reigning bully of the detention center, Carlin's reputation immediately sends everyone into fits of ire. Pongo (John Blundell), the Borstal's "Daddy" (the leader of the inmates who controls everyone through intermittent beatings and mind-games) quickly puts Carlin in his place by, well, beating him up. Not content to sit around and conform to the wishes of Pongo and his flunkies, Carlin retaliates with an inventive use of some handy billiard balls and the edge of a bathroom sink. With the prophetic words "I'm the Daddy now," Carlin assumes his newfound position with a quiet authority, while protecting his turf and getting the officers to grant his demands. With the tables turned in his favor, Carlin is suddenly thrust into the power politics of the Borstal, where the officers lean on him to keep all the youths in order in exchange for certain perks.
Not everything is so strikingly grim though. Some shafts of light spiral through the Borstal walls, mainly due to the exploits of Archer's character (ably played by Mick Ford). A thoughtful, exceptionally smart young man, Archer has devoted his time in the Borstal to be as much of a nuisance to the "screws" (officers) as he can. This involves requesting a special vegetarian diet, to not wearing the standard-issue leather shoes given to the prisoners and by continually complaining about not having proper books to read. As the Borstal Governor's patience grows thinner and thinner, Archer never wavers from his eccentric behavior, infuriating all with his Atheist-infused beliefs. Director Clarke nicely balances the harrowing solitude with Archer's humorous proclivities, highlighting one of the few Borstal residents who hasn't lost his individuality.
With that said, the violence in "Scum" is raw, powerful and graphic, sometimes treading an uneasy line between exploitation and social commentary. At certain moments, the camera lingers a little too long on gushing blood, which could lead one to either dismiss the film as being an exercise of excess or an unflinching, realistic portrayal of violence. I tend to take the latter position, since the film as a whole gives weight to these splattery, uncomfortable outbursts. Clarke and his actors do an exemplary job of garnering our sympathy, so whenever a gut-churning act of violence (be it physical, sexual or mental) enters our line of sight, we actually care about what happens to the characters. While numerous traumatic scenarios are played out, the dark clouds of dread hovering over the characters eventually produces a downpour of rage, both in the youths and in us. With an ambiguous, downbeat climax, "Scum" ends on a provocative note that left me numb and angry. It's a testament to the talent involved that the film continues to resonate on such an intense emotional level after all these years.
Blue Underground presents the Theatrical version of "Scum" in an anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio, preserving its original composition. The cold, grey and uninviting colors are nicely realized, creating a feeling of isolation. There are minor hints of grain and specks, but nothing too significant to distract the viewer. Skin tones are natural looking and edge enhancement is non-existent. The transfer is extremely sharp with optimal clarity. For the BBC version, the film is presented in its televised Full Frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is significantly grainier and suffers from many specks. Compared to the more polished Theatrical version, this print appears hazy and murky, with an abundance of soft images. Even though the print is rife with blemishes, the black levels happen to be nice and deep. This version seems to have been shot on 16mm film, which greatly adds to the cinema verite quality of the subject matter. Overall, the deteriorated quality adds to the claustrophobic, insular feeling of the Borstal.
For audio, the Theatrical version comes in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix and the Original Mono. The BBC version only comes with a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix. All of these options are similar in execution, with the 5.1 mix slightly more dynamic. Dialogue is clean and clear, devoid of hiss or distortion and is reproduced in the central channels. Directional effects are minimal and faintly realized in the rear speakers. There's not a whole lot of depth to the mixes, no doubt due in part by the lack of non-diegetic sounds. With the exception of the end credits in the BBC version, there is no soundtrack music. This creates a haunting, dissonant quality to the film. The only subtitle options are in English.
Disc 1 includes a Commentary by Star Ray Winstone. Winstone is a profane and talkative man who has no problems speaking his mind. Joined on the commentary by an interviewer, Winstone is prompted to answer many questions about the production. Veering from anecdotes about the theatrical version and the BBC version, the commentary eventually becomes screen specific as the film moves along. Winstone speaks about his relative inexperience during the original production (at the time, he wasn't planning on being an actor) and the misconception that most of the actors were non-professionals. The interviewer compares "Scum" to the Western genre, especially how Carlin starts off quiet and unassuming (with rage slowly building inside of him), until he eventually unleashes his bottled-up fury. Winstone praises Director Alan Clarke, relating memories about how he manipulated many of the actors to get them into the proper frame of mind to tackle the harsh material. Also, he mentions how influential Clarke was to various British talents; like actor/directors Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. For some reason, the audio on this commentary sounds like it was recorded in an airport hangar. It's also, at times, difficult to understand Winstone through his thick accent (I did make out all the F-bombs though). Despite these drawbacks, it's clearly evident how proud Winston is of both films and the commentary is enjoyable, entertaining and highly informative.
Also included is a 17 minute EPK-style interview with Producer Clive Parsons and Writer Roy Minton. Mainly focusing on the Producer's thoughts (with clips from both versions interspersed throughout the conversation), Parsons details the origins of the BBC version, explaining how it was commissioned for television and eventually banned. Once the rights lapsed from the BBC, they reverted back to Roy and thus the Theatrical version was born. Roy speaks about his mild displeasure over how the homosexual relationship between Carlin and his "missus" was excised in the Theatrical cut, since it added an extra dimension to Carlin's character making him more flawed and vulnerable. Parsons also thinks that the film has held up surprisingly well, mainly because the entirety of "Scum" takes place in an institution. The most dramatic sequence (the billiard ball attack), is paid a significant amount of lip service, as Parsons relates how the one-shot scene was achieved. For an EPK interview, this Extra covers a nice amount of ground.
Rounding out the Disc are the requisite Poster and Still Galleries, as well as the Theatrical Trailer.
On Disc 2, we have the BBC version of the film. Completed two years prior to the Theatrical version, the BBC cut is definitely rougher around the edges. For the most part, it adheres to the same structure and has identical dialogue and scenes. The locations differ (appearing even more ominous and claustrophobic) and some of the actors are different (most notably the character of Archer). Perhaps the most interesting difference is the inclusion of Carlin's homosexual proposition and a slightly less ambiguous ending regarding the fates of certain characters.
For Extras, we first have a Commentary With Stars Phil Daniels (Richards) and David Threlfall (Archer) and Producer Margaret Matheson. Similar to the Disc 1 Commentary, the participants are joined by a moderator to keep the conversation flowing. Margaret talks about how the project was set up for the BBC and the actors give information about Alan Clarke's manipulative style of directing. They also comment about how the BBC version is less technical, causing the acting and camerawork to come across much rawer. David also explains his reasons for not being in the Theatrical cut (due to contractual obligations with the Royal Shakespeare Company) and Phil mentions how he wasn't keen revisiting the material a second time, since he felt that the film was too sensationalistic (what with the piling on of suicide scenes and all). Margaret also had prior commitments and felt that tackling the same subject matter again would be too sad and grueling. When the BBC banned the telefilm, various playwrights came forward to support the movie and Clarke set up a special screening in SoHo for the media, which rankled the powers-that-be at the BBC. This retaliation by the filmmakers earned a significant amount of press and put the BBC in an even worse light. While not as rancorous and humorous as the Winstone commentary, this is still an entertaining and informative listen.
Next up are Two Selected Scenes With Audio Commentary By Star Ray Winstone. The first scene, "Introducing Carlin," has Winstone talking about the differences in age between the Borstal youths in the BBC version. Everybody was two years younger than in the Theatrical cut and this gives their actions a different feel, since it was boys committing these acts as opposed to men, making the film even more brutal and disturbing. Also, to avoid troubles with the authorities, fake scripts were printed and left lying around the set with less incriminating material contained inside. The final scene is "Carlin Takes A Missus," or as Winstone calls it, "Daddy" takes a "Mommy." Winstone explains his grievance over the minor subplot and why he asked Alan Clarke to remove it from the Theatrical version. He states that he didn't think Carlin would be into such a thing and that, as a young man, he felt uncomfortable with the scene. Later, he discovered that this was a common occurrence in Borstals.
The "Scum: 2-Disc Limited Edition" chronicles the frightening plight of young men who have been discarded by society and thrust into the bowels of incarceration. Instead of rehabilitating these misguided youths, the system they find themselves under decides to strip away their individuality and will to live. Director Alan Clarke has created a sobering look into the futility of a British Borstel, where fear and intimidation reign supreme. Blue Underground has done a commendable job in bringing this influential gem back to life. With a double-disc presentation containing both versions of the film and complemented by a nice set of extras, "Scum" deserves a chance for parole. For those who can stomach realistic violence and harsh subject matter, this DVD comes highly recommended.