The Human Swamp: An Overview of the Horror Films of S.F. Brownrigg
Despite the Hee Haw stereotypes that are too often associated with the South, there is much strangeness, beauty and darkness in this region. Nowhere is this reflected more accurately than in the arts. Such brilliant artists as Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams are only just a few of many whose work have illustrated the many shades of life and death in the South. While numerous articles, books and classes have been taught about those figures, one artist in particular has until very recently, gone criminally and largely unmentioned. I am talking about the great and extremely underrated filmmaker S.F. Brownrigg.
Brownrigg, born on September 30, 1937, made only four notable films in his lifetime but what a four they were. (For what it’s worth, Brownrigg is credited for a fifth film, an 1980’s T&A comedy called “Thinkin’Big” (1986), but we’ll leave that one for the more studious Brownrigg writers.) These are works that deal with insanity, poverty, incest, murder, and a universe where there are never any clear happy endings. Every one of these films is incredibly rich in atmosphere while somehow retaining a strong sense of realism. Each frame is one you can practically touch, taste, see, and feel. Even if you necessarily don’t want to.
BIO FUN - S.F. BROWNRIGG was born in Eldorado, Arkansas, his parents names were Ebbie and Jaunita (Crawford), and he passed away in Dallas, Texas on September 20, 1996.
His career as a director shot off with a big bang with 1973’s “Don’t Look in the Basement!” (The version of this film that Cinefear offers is the most complete around, as both the VCI video and DVD is taken from a TV print. This is off a 35mm print, and while not completely uncut, has much more gore than any previous version).The film opens with a great visual shot of a white, almost sterile looking, large house in a rural area. Off-screen, a man’s voice starts frantically saying, “It’s gotta be them Sam!” This isn’t just any nice old house in the country. It is, in fact a mental institution. But naturally, the home is not your garden-variety facility for the mentally ill. Instead of combating against the patient’s assorted ill tendencies, they are encouraged to explore and even revel in them. It is this unusual approach by Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey), that attracts young nurse Charlotte Beale (former Playboy model Rosie Holotik) to come work at the home. Unfortunately, by the time Charlotte arrives, the well meaning Dr. Stephens has disappeared, leaving her with the stern Geraldine Masters (Annabelle Weenick) and the inmates themselves.
The true heart of this movie lies with the inmates. In many ways, their
stories and personalities are more compelling then Charlotte, who would
traditionally be the one for the audience to identify with. There’s
Sam (Bill McGhee), an incredibly sweet man whose botched brain surgery
has rendered him as a mental child. (Not entirely unlike Lenny from Steinback’s
classic American novel Of Mice and Men.) Then there is Harriet (the incredible
Camilla Carr), who is violently obsessed with taking care of her “baby,”
Judge Oliver W. Cameron (Gene Ross), whose entire existence revolves around
his past profession, Allyson (Betty Chandler, who bears a slight resemblance
to Linda Lovelace), a former prostitute and current love starved nymphomaniac,
Danny (Jessie Kirby) an incredibly annoying and immature young man, the
shook up war veteran Sergeant Jaffee (Hugh Feagin), the mute and at times
feral young girl Jennifer (Harryette Warren) and the strange old lady,
Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams.) (On a bit of a side note, the entire
cast is excellent and very organic here. Especially Bill McGhee, who was
also in Larry Buchanan’s rare cult film, “High Yellow.”
MORE BIO FUN - S.F. BROWNRIGG served in the United States Army from 1961-62.
“Scum of the Earth” aka “Poor White Trash II” (The video Cinefear offers also includes a rare, TV trailer not seen on any other trailer compilations, and believe us, this one has to be seen to be believed), opens up like your standard backwoods 70’s era slasher film. An attractive and young couple arrives at a log cabin by the lake. Everything is near idyllic, with some playful flirting and her reminiscing about how her family would come to the same cabin many years ago. But paradise is fleeting as a mysterious figure with an axe brutally murders Paul (Joel Colodner), leaving a traumatized and terrified Helen (Norma Moore) to flee into the dark mouth of the woods. The credits roll and Helen runs, all to the tune of an incredibly creepy country song called “Death is a Family Affair.” Indeed it is.
While running, Helen nearly runs into the looming figure of one Odis Pickett (in a brilliant and absolutely terrifying performance by regular Gene Ross). Despite Odis’s none too subtle advances and more than likely wild animal scent, Helen agrees to go with him to his house. All in the hopes of having access to a phone, so she can call in for help.
They arrive at the Pickett homestead where Odis’s good hearted, meek, and heavily pregnant young wife Emmy (Ann Stafford), sassy daughter (Camilla Carr) and mongoloid son Bo (Charlie Dell) wait. Much to Helen’s natural chagrin, she finds out that there is no phone there and that the only nearby phone is at a house filled with nothing but hillbilly men who are more than likely woman-hungry. Not that being cooped up with an overly eager and progressively boozier Odis is much better, but with the killer still loose somewhere in the night and the sweet consolation by Emmy, Helen reluctantly agrees to stay for the night.
Her already hellish evening grows progressively worse as the body toll rises, coinciding with Odis’s growing sweaty lust. All the while, assorted shocking and grim familial secrets are revealed. Like Chekhov’s famed gun in the first act theory, everything comes to an intensely blood and surprising end with an ending that you will not be able to shake off anytime soon. (Not that the previous 89 minutes are easy to shake off either.)
Considered by most to be the dirt and sweat stained jewel in Brownrigg’s impressive resume, “Scum of the Earth” is one of the most visceral cinematic experiences ever. Critics may have raved about John Boorman’s “Deliverance” (1972), but make no mistakes, this is the ultimate backwoods horror. While Boorman is obviously a talented director in his own right, Brownrigg’s film is more disturbing because it feels more authentic. The most horrific films are always the ones that ring the most true.
While the film might play like a rather lurid southern tinged exploiter to some, I can state personally as a born and bred southern lady, I have known a few Pickett’s in my time. All stereotypes are rooted in at least a little bit of truth, but that is not why the film is so frightening. The true core of fear that stems from “Scum of the Earth” is that almost every character is portrayed as a human being. Take Odis for example. He might be one of the most foul, abusive and reprehensive characters in film history, but he is one with a heart. It might be a heart that is soaked in gut rot alcohol but it’s there. This is true with the scenes when the killer starts to prey upon his children. It is this warped sense of familial love that makes the movie so fascinating and depressing.
But this element of truth to the proceedings could not have totally shined through it wasn’t for the actors. The best direction in the world can be rendered handicapped if the players are sub par and this crew of actors are anything but. The absolute standout performance here has to be Gene Ross as Odis. Ross, who was one of the handful of actors that was part of the Brownrigg’s stable of players, is extremely believable and imposing here. Not just physically, though being sporting a barrel chest and one of the most eerie comb-overs ever doesn’t hurt, but the way he simply emotes and leers with his eyes is intense. Nobody else could play Odis like Ross does.
The rest of the cast, especially Camilla Carr and Ann Stafford are equally great. Flame haired Carr is fabulous as the tart and witchy Sara. Carr handles what maybe the most complex character out of the entire film with a disturbing amount of ease. Sara is someone who is capable of both good humanity, such as deterring Odis from one of his many attempted rapes on Helen and the small signs that she is interested in a life outside of the rural Pickett shack. (Such as her love of glossy magazines.) Yet, she has a dark side, much like her father’s, when it comes to tormenting both her harmless and mentally challenged brother and the traumatized Helen.
Stafford is equally effective as poor Emmy, whom in some ways is more of a sympathetic victim than Helen. She is the true heart of the film and the only one out of the whole Pickett clan who isn’t tainted by either garrulous demons or stunted mental growth. Again, like the rest of the characters, the potential for things to turn into caricature was strong, but Stafford keeps her role very believable, making Emmy all the more likable and heartbreaking.
EVEN MORE BIO FUN - S.F. BROWNRIGG married his wife Elizabeth Ann April 4, 1964. He had three children, Stacy, Tony, Linda.
Following the beautifully dysfunctional steps of “Scum of the Earth,” was the 1975 film “Don’t Open the Door!” While the title might sound like an heir to Brownrigg’s first film, the premise and overall tone is very different. “Don’t Look in the Basement” was seeped in the setup of what happens when one’s sanity fails them. The only true villain was the brain, since naturally, no one really chooses to become mental illness. While technically, one could say that the same could be said for “Don’t Open the Door,” there is more of a twisted, sinister air.
“Don’t Open” opens with Brownrigg vets Gene Ross and Annabelle Weenick, tersely arguing in an old train cabin converted into a trailer. Apparently, the elderly Miss Post (Rhea MacAdams) is gravely ill. Annie (Weenick) wants to notify the woman’s granddaughter, who is the woman’s only close living relative. This strangely upsets the scary eyed Judge Stemple (Ross, playing yet another judge) who quietly threatens Annie if she does anything of the sort.
But Stemple’s steely glance and low menace does not deter Annie, who leaves an anonymous message at the younger Post’s house, telling her to come as quickly as possible. Flash to the granddaughter, who gets the message and immediately starts packing. Her beau Nick (Hugh Feagin) shows up, wanting to know why she is leaving. She informs him about her grandmother’s illness and the fact that she hasn’t visited her hometown in over 13 years. Not since her mother passed away at the House of the Seasons. The screen fades into a black background, with nothing against it except a blonde haired doll. The beginning credits roll as the only mildly creepy blonde doll is exchanged with a stunning array of incredibly creepy, nightmare inducing dolls.
Courtesy of a taught flashback, we learn why the granddaughter, Amanda (Susan Bracken) has stayed away from town for so long. On one deceptively quiet night, young Amanda is woken up from her slumber by the curdling screams of her mother. She stumbles upon the now freshly stabbed and dead body of her sole parent. If that’s not bad enough, the unseen killer slightly strokes her cheek, almost lovingly before running off, never to be captured.
Despite this awful history, Amanda goes back to tend to her grandmother and occupy the house that is currently being battled over between Stemple and Claude Kearns (Larry O’Dwyer), the main curator of the local doll museum. Amanda’s arrival temporarily throws a wrench into their plan. Especially when she calls Nick, who happens to be a doctor, to come down and help get her grandmother admitted to a proper hospital.
Amanda gets the men out the house, who were hovering vulture like over the drugged up but still breathing form of her grandma and begins to explore her childhood home. It isn’t long before things start to slowly unravel, this time in the form of an obscene phone caller. She writes it off as nothing but a prank and does what anyone else would do in that situation, take a bath!
But she is not alone, as the audience soon learns not only the identity of the caller/murderer, but also the fact that he is in the house watching her! It is a downward spiral from there, as Amanda is sexually degraded by the unknown (to her) caller and starts to crack, resulting in another surprising and very risky ending.
One of the really interesting things about this film is that the element of sex really comes into play here. It’s something that was pretty much non-existent in “Don’t Look” and was more of an act of violence in “Scum of the Earth.” (Sara’s part time job of hooking aside.) Here lust becomes less of an act of violence and more of an act of physical obsession, particularly with Kearn’s love and desiring of the pretty Amanda. (Brownrigg was a genius for casting Bracken and her lovely, doll like features.) Sure, it’s still creepy but it is a closer root to human lust than Odis’s moonshine driven attacks. Some of this credit naturally goes to O’Dwyer, whose Kearn is at times sympathetic and at other times very creepy, especially considering that he mentions at one point that his love for Amanda beginning when she was still a young girl.
The most striking thing overall about “Don’t Open the Door” is Brownrigg’s visual approach. One of his biggest strengths as a filmmaker is how he was able to utilize imagery, especially in terms of enhancing the atmosphere. For example, the windows in the very top room in the House of the Seasons are bright red and blue, giving a simultaneously surreal and carnival type effect. It certainly brings to mind some of the great Italian directors of the time period, with Mario Bava being the most obvious example. In many ways, this movie is like a Southern version of a giallo, with the artistic angles (every frame of this film could be used as great looking still in a coffee table book), sordid sexuality, and dark violence. (Not to mention “House of the Seasons” sounds eerily like a giallo title.) The main difference is that the killer’s identity is revealed fairly early on. I do think that it is telling that Brownrigg was making these films during the height of the giallos. In many ways, he was not a follower but a leader.
My only complaint about “Don’t Open” is that it feels too brief. There are many unanswered questions, especially dealing with the origins of Kearns twin obsessions of Amanda and dolls, not to mention Amanda’s own fate. But perhaps it is better for a movie to leave you wanting more than less.
AND EVEN MORE BIO FUN - S.F. BROWNRIGG was an audio engineer for Jamieson Film Co. in Dallas from 1955-61. With these skills, he acted as sound man for Larry Buchanan's The Naked Witch in 1964. He was a sound mixer for 1960's The Seventh Commandment, sound supervisor on Buchanan's Zontar, The Thing From Venus in 1966, and film editor on Buchanan's Eye Creatures of 1965.
Speaking of brooding, tainted sexuality and unusual camera angles, there is Brownrigg’s final genre film, “Keep My Grave Open. (1976)” (By far, the best title of the bunch.) The always-captivating Camilla Carr returns as the attractive, well to do and eccentric Lesley Fontaine, making a full 180 from her previous turns in the earlier mentioned films.
“Keep My Grave Open” begins with a hobo looking guy hitchhiking and wandering along an anonymous looking country road. He soon stumbles upon a road with a sign that says “Keep Out Not Responsible For Any Accidents.” Given the scary things he has probably seen in his life of hobodom or a moment of sheer bad judgment, he ignores it and finds his way to a big, gorgeous brick house. Hungry, he goes inside, since no one is apparently home and raids the fridge. Unfortunately, his food raiding days are soon numbered as an unseen killer attacks and promptly murders him.
Via a great dissolve, we go from his bloodied body to a butcher shop where Harriet is picking up some meat and a nice, wooden pipe. She heads back home, which is incidentally the same house where the hobo had been. Her stable boy Robert (Stephen Tobolowski) tries to convince her to let him use her horse in a calf-roping contest. She’s unsure but decides to sleep on it for the time being.
So far, everything appears fairly standard, the drifter murder aside. You see, Harriet has a roommate, who goes by the name of Kevin. At first, it looks like they had an off-screen lovers spat, since he refuses to talk to her or come out of his room. She talks to her doctor, Mr. Emerson (a wonderfully subdued and non-villainous Gene Ross) about him. He offers to talk to Kevin, but she immediately rebuffs him, almost possessively so. Obviously, something is amiss in Denmark, but things are still a bit hazy to see what piece is not fitting in.
Harriet’s clinginess and obsession over Kevin becomes more clear, while the killer is still on the loose, soon attacking Robert’s playful girlfriend, Suzie (Ann Stafford.) The film swerves deeper and deeper into a frightening pool sexual dysfunction, involving the reoccurring Brownrigg themes of incest (“Scum of the Earth”), prostitution (“Don’t Look in the Basement,” “Scum of the Earth,”) and bleak endings (all of them.) Not to mention one of the most disturbing sex scenes in recent memory, which is all the more impressive given that there isn’t a lick of nudity involved.
If you enjoyed Carr in her previous Brownrigg outings, then you absolutely have to pick up “Keep My Grave Open.” It’s a virtual love letter to her as an actress. She looks stunning at times and is perfectly able to combine her beauty with complete and utterly believable madness. While the other actors are perfectly fine, especially the always-reliable Ross, this is Carr’s show all the way. Which in a way, is oddly fitting given that this is her last Brownrigg film.
S.F. Brownrigg was and truly is a unique American filmmaker. In another time, perhaps he would have gotten the attention he rightfully deserved, when Southern Gothic or flat out horror isn’t treated like some kind of genre ghetto. The man was able to weave adult topics, tangible atmosphere and incredible actors all together to form his own indelible fingerprint on independent cinema. Back when the word “indie” still had some bite to it and not rendered fangless thanks to Hollywood and corporate film festivals like Sundance.
So if you’re on the lookout for effective cinema that delves into the darker side of the human condition, while retaining an artist’s eye for communication, then do yourself a favor and seek out all of the films of one S. F. Brownrigg.
FINAL FUN BIO FACT - S.F. BROWNRIGG was president of his
own film company, Century Studios, which he started in 1964, and held
until his death. He wanted to film a sequel to Todd Browning's classic
1932 horror film Freaks, to be called Freaks II. If
anyone could have pulled it off, Brownrigg would have been the man.