A raw and unflinching glimpse into the twisted lives of American Scumbags
In late 2015, Denver Underground filmmaker Dakota Bailey and his collaborators made a film called My Master Satan: 3 Tales of Drug Fueled Violence. The film was released in mid 2016, and in August 2016, he announced he was working on a new film called American Scumbags. It was at this time he contacted us and asked if we could screen and review My Master Satan, which had generated some buzz in the underground and cult film community.
We love discovering original new voices in film and media, and we have a strong appetite for the kind of art that mainstream viewers ignore and/or that never gets proper exposure (typically due to micro budgets and lack of real distribution). While My Master Satan was incredibly raw and unpolished, both in content and execution, we appreciated how refreshingly original and unapologetically fearless it was.
Dakota shot his new film, American Scumbags, in a few short months at the end of 2016, releasing it early January 2017. We were eager to see more from this renegade filmmaker. We wanted more of his unique narrative and filmmaking style, but we also wanted to see all the ways in which he would grow as a filmmaker and bring something new and interesting to the table. He did not disappoint.
American Scumbags is a sleaze/trash/exploitation film featuring three interconnected stories revolving around heroin-addicted drug dealer Johnny (played by Dakota Bailey himself), sadistic psychopathic convict Billy (Darien Fawkes) and drug kingpin Chester (Fred Epstein). The film takes the viewer deep into a seedy underworld where crime and drugs rule.
Although not really a direct sequel to ‘My Master Satan’, ‘American Scumbags’ definitely feels like it takes place in the same world, with similar deplorable characters living on the fringe of society. Once again, he creates characters who are utterly despicable — sadistic, psychopathic, morally bankrupt and devoid of any redeeming qualities. These are criminals, drug dealers, rapists, murderers…and worse.
However, in spite of how appalling these characters are and how offensive their behavior, you can’t stop watching. These are the kind of brilliant performances that make you almost certain you aren’t watching performances at all. You will swear these are real people who truly behave this way, and morbid curiosity will compel you to see just how far the depths of their depravity will reach. Spoiler alert: It’s pretty damn far!
My Master Satan reveled in going to extremes and testing the viewer’s tolerance for some of the worst behavior imaginable. Somehow, Bailey manages to raise the stakes even higher in American Scumbags. He seems to take a perverse kind of joy in offending every sensibility imaginable. Nothing is off limits. As with My Master Satan, there’s quite a bit of simulated animal cruelty, which may be difficult for some to take.
In addition to ramping up the chaos and brutality, Bailey also enhances the dark comedy. There were quite a few scenes, as disturbing as they were, that I couldn’t help but giggle at for the sheer absurdity of the situation. For example, there’s a scene where one of the worst characters visits his mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. But he makes it clear he’s not there to pay loving tribute. In fact, he proceeds to urinate on her grave, while cursing her for not letting him get a mullet when he was 16 years old.
The characters, while just as deplorable as those in My Master Satan, also have more of a twisted charm to them. To say they are likable would be ridiculous. But they are certainly fun to watch.
I was fascinated to watch the behind-the-scenes documentary (which appears on the film’s DVD) and learn how Bailey assembled his eclectic talent. Most of the cast fell into place through chance encounters and very loose connections to Bailey. The character of Lucifer, who I thoroughly enjoyed, was played by Nick Benning. A former musician, Benning met Bailey in a thrift store while shopping for horror movies. Bailey liked his look and his passion for horror, and he offered him a role in his film.
Another great character, the drug kingpin Chester, is played to perfection by Fred Epstein. Fred is a friend of Nick’s who took the role on a whim because it sounded like fun. The fact that none of these actors are professional really works for this film, leading to truly authentic performances that add to the gritty realism of the movie.
Dakota takes everything that worked about ‘My Master Satan’ and improves upon it here. He also delivers a much more polished film, significantly improving technical aspects such as editing and sound quality. However, he still maintains the dirty, gritty, ultra-realistic (almost found footage style) aesthetic. It seemed he learned a great deal from his first feature film, and he used that experience to elevate his craft while staying true to his unique vision.
As fans of subversive, cult, and underground cinema, we enjoyed the crazy ride Dakota Bailey and his colleagues took us on with American Scumbags.
It’s not for everyone. Not by a long shot. This film was made for a very specific niche audience, and Bailey makes no apologies for that. “I just try to make the film I want to see, the best way I can, and be sincere and un-cynical,” explains Bailey.