Judge Christopher Kulik turned his head completely around when he saw Linda Blair take off her clothes.
Our review of Savage Streets: Two-Disc Special Edition, published March 29th, 2013, is also available.
"It's too bad you're not double-jointed! Because if you were, you'd be able to bend over and kiss your ass goodbye!"—Linda Blair, right before dispatching a punk
I can see why rape/revenge flicks have become some of the biggest cult films of all time. They tell simple, uncomplicated stories. The bad guys are usually repellent creeps with too much time on their hands, and their actions actually make you vote for vigilantism. The good characters usually have their own sidetracked moral compasses, nothing compromising their goal of vengeance. If it wasn't for all the critics who denounced these films back in the day, we may have never had a Savage Streets: 2-Disc Special Edition, which now penetrates your DVD player courtesy of BCI Eclipse.
Facts of the Case
Tough babe Brenda (Linda Blair, The Exorcist) and her posse of bad-ass bitches love to roam the streets of LA at night. They are not looking for trouble, however, and Brenda's main responsibility is her little sister Heather (Linnea Quigley, The Return Of The Living Dead), who's been deaf and mute since birth. When Heather trips and almost gets run over by a gang of thugs called The Scars, led by Jake (Robert Dryer, Cyborg 2), it upsets Brenda so much that she decides to get back at them by stealing their car and crashing it into some garbage cans.
The next day, Jake arrives at Brenda's high school to dole out some retaliation. While Brenda is busy brawling with a stuck-up blonde cheerleader named Cindy (Rebecca Perle, Tightrope) in the female locker room, Jake spies Heather headed for the empty gymnasium. Within moments, Brenda finds herself in the office of Principal Underwood (John Vernon, Animal House), and Heather finds herself in the boys bathroom being brutally raped by Jake and his cohorts. Jake leaves her for dead, but Heather manages to survive and arrive at the hospital in critical condition. At first, Brenda feels guilt for not being there, but then vows to find the goons and take swift justice…but not before taking a bath.
By the tagline ("They raped her sister…now she must seek revenge!") and plot synopsis, Savage Streets sounds like an 80s exploitation film with all the expected ingredients. This must have played like gangbusters with its 1984 audience, as it sacrificed any hint at subtlety and just went straight for the throat. The film has violence and nudity galore, and much of the plot dynamics border on unpleasant. The performances can be easily attacked as being outrageously over-the-top and unrealistic, and the director can be accused of being a perverted voyeur, selling rape and sadism as forms of entertainment. Without a doubt, this picture screams bad at every possible angle…
…and yet, I loved it! I found it a genuine blast from start to finish, as it actually overcomes its exploitation roots by sporting a gritty edge, a pumping heart, and a heavy dose of unadulterated fun.
Even though I still have yet to see the director's debut film (a 1974 porno called High Rise), I will say for now that Savage Streets is Danny Steinmann's masterpiece. Just to clarify, the only other two films Steinmann has directed are The Unseen (which I recently reviewed), and Friday The 13th: A New Beginning. Even though the latter film is what he's best known for, it's also (arguably) the worst in the series, as it does virtually the same thing as Halloween III: The Season Of The Witch did: ditch the killer for a lame new story. As for The Unseen, I found it a dull, thoroughly conventional affair which borrowed too many familiar elements from better movies, and had absolutely nothing in terms of scares and shocks. Steinmann himself concurs on the first audio commentary for Savage Streets that the final editing was atrocious, as it eliminated all the quick jumps he carefully laid out. As a result, he took his name off the picture and didn't want to be associated with it anymore.
When Steinmann arrived on Savage Streets, original director Tom DeSimone (Reform School Girls) had taken a hike a few days before. Danny hated the script so much that he felt he must start a re-write that very night—and he continued re-writing every night throughout the 29-day shoot! The hard work paid off handsomely, as Danny was able to give his characters dimensions, each exploring different emotions. Not all of his nuances made it past the producers, including a dramatic monologue he wrote for Vince to give to a hospital bed-ridden Heather, but they undeniably give the film more substance. In short, Danny took routes which other directors would ignore completely, resulting in the viewer caring about these characters, even if some of them are campy to the extreme. Another advantage was letting many of his actors improvise, including the always-wonderful John Vernon who steals all three of his scenes. When he says "Go f*ck an iceberg!" to Jake in his face, you know you're in for a good time.
As for the rape sequence, it's handled with more taste than you might expect. The build-up to it is actually more horrifying than the act itself. First off, even though Quigley was 25 when the film was made she looks at least a decade younger; in other words, the casting proved to be effective, and her performance is remarkably believable. Second, chills go through your body when you see Fargo approach her and pretend to make a friendly connection, especially when you know his true intentions and she doesn't because of her innocence. The rape itself is ugly—as it should be—and doesn't even attempt to be erotic, which would have screamed exploitation inside and out. In addition, Danny makes a wise choice by not emotionally torturing the viewer, as he breaks away to what Brenda is doing, which is putting her dukes up on Cindy. These scenes are played with a heavy tongue-in-cheek, and thus it allows the viewer a breather from the unrelenting tension of the rape.
The best thing about Savage Streets and, virtually its whole raison d'être, is the incredibly busty Linda Blair. The stories you've heard are true: she does appear nude in this film, and while it will be a sight to behold for many male viewers, I got to say she gives a ingeniously comic performance for the ages. She won a Razzie award, but whatever insults you throw at her for being miscast, unrealistic, or one loud-hair of a joke, she sells this character as a real guilty pleasure. Come on, now: she starts catfights in the shower room, calls the head cheerleader a c*nt, says she wouldn't screw Cindy's boyfriend even if he had the last dick on Earth, makes The Scars sexually frustrated to the nth degree, mocks the principal with utter glee, etc…how can you not like her? Her climactic transformation may make no sense, but when she packs a knife and arrows, wears a black jumpsuit giving her cleavage full advantage and go all Bronson on Jake's sorry ass, you can't help but applaud and shout, "You go, girl!" This is without a doubt her best performance since The Exorcist, whether that's saying a lot or not.
A number of distribution companies have joined forces to bring us a super-packed, special edition of this cult classic. Obviously, BCI Eclipse—along with Deimos Entertainment, Bryanston Distributors, and Red Shirt Pictures—wanted to give fans their money's worth and, for the most part, they have gloriously succeeded. The back of the DVD claims the 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen print has been re-mastered in high-def from the original negative; yet, the results are not as pristine as I was hoping for. The print has some noticeable damage in the form of specks, scratches, and white spots. On the other hand, the flesh tones and black levels are reasonably solid, and the colors of the L.A. scene are well preserved. I'm not sure if this was the best they could do but, thankfully, the picture's debris doesn't ruin the viewing experience.
I can't say as many positive things as the audio presentation, however. What we have is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track, and the exact same problem from The Unseen persists: when there is no music, it sounds like there is a phonograph left on in the background, resulting in a bunch of pops and cracks. When the songs are playing, it's not a big deal, but they become a major distraction during the dramatic scenes which have no dialogue. It's a near fatal flaw, but thankfully the cheesy-but-cool 80s rock ballads drown out the problem, while the dialogue is easily heard more often than not. Still, I have just one question for BCI: is it too much to ask to upgrade the soundtrack to 5.1?
The visual and audio quality may have their share of problems, but the extras is what makes this set a contender for one of the best DVD releases of the year. As insane as it sounds, Savage Streets has been blessed with three (count 'em, three!) audio commentaries on the first disc, and they're all a pleasure to listen to. Practically everything from pre-production to post-production is covered, along with some priceless recollections about working with colleagues, and just a bunch of joking around.
My vote for the best one is the first, which has director Danny Steinmann and moderator Michael Felsher, the head of Red Shirt Pictures. Danny hasn't seen the film in its entirety, and while he's clear that the film was originally intended to be nothing more than cheap exploitation, he actually came away moderately proud of the final product. (All those late-night re-writes and battles with the producers evidently paid off!) Even better, Steinmann does gloss over his other three films, and Friday The 13th fans will be eager to hear his conflicts with the MPAA over excessive gore.
The second audio commentary invites primary producer John Strong, along with actors Robert Dryer and Johnny Venocur, who plays Vince (the wild card Scar). This track is not quite as detailed as the first one, but it's still breezy and fun, and moderator David DeCouteu does an excellent job of asking them questions and keeping them talking. Strong delves much into the financial problems behind the scenes, and the actors just crack a bunch of jokes while also (occasionally) talking about their characters.
Last but not least, the final audio track has cinematographer Stephen Posey, actor Sal Landi (who plays Scar member Fargo), and Dryer, who returns for seconds. Posey talks a bit about the nighttime shoots on the LA streets, including taking advantage of Hollywood Boulevard at numerous times. This time, the moderator is Mark Hoight and while things get a little repetitive at this point (along with some quiet moments), there is still a lot of good info and humor offered here. All three of these tracks give the film much more accessibility and respect than it may deserve, but there no complaints from me.
Moving onto the second disc, we have five individual interviews. First in line is Linda Blair ("Confessions of a Teenage Vigilante," 15 minutes), who is surprisingly enthusiastic about being involved in the project, and provides only affectionate words on her cast and crew. She was drawn to the role because of the masculine-heavy, beef 'n' brawn slant of the 1980s, which had limited the number of well-written female roles. Naturally, Blair confesses her love of playing Brenda and saying some of the film's now-famous, oft-repeated lines. And, yes, she's still jaw-droppingly gorgeous, even though she turns 50 next year.
Following Blair is her on-screen sibling Linnea Quigley ("Heather Speaks," 11 Minutes) who is equally candid and upbeat about the experience. Among other things, she talks about the mini-ballet she does right before the rape, the fact that Brenda was originally supposed to be played by The Runaway's Cherie Currie, working with Blair, and even studying sign language in preparation for the role! Of course, she also explains how she approached the rape sequence with guts, rejecting to the producer's wishes to go overboard on the blood and mucus being applied. Quigley is a delight to listen to, especially as she pokes fun at her cast mates from Noo Yawk.
Rounding out the interviews are John Strong, Robert Dryer, and Johnny Venocur. They are all relatively brief, running anywhere from 5 to 14 minutes and while a lot of ground is repeatedly covered, they are still worth watching. Venocur is especially funny as he cackles on about all those he worked with and what he does in his life, while Strong is completely professional in his memories.
Also included is a couple of theatrical trailers, one for Savage Streets and the other for Final Exam, which was released on DVD concurrently by BCI. As if all those extras weren't enough, there is an additional treat with a small booklet with a series of domestic and international posters, along with images of the extremely rare soundtrack album on LP. Evidently, the film was re-titled 5 Deadly Angels for the Pakastani audience, and for some inexplicable reason Cindy is depicted as one of Brenda's flock.
Sure, Savage Streets will never be considered high art, but more like ostensibly exploitative trash which happens to be written, directed, and acted with great gusto and a snappy style. The film will never appeal to all tastes, though I recommend it alone for the bravura Blair, who pulls out all the stops and kicks ass, whether she's clothed or not.
Steinmann and his Savage Streets are found not guilty, with leading ladies Blair and Quigley free to go. As for BCI Eclipse, they are hereby acquitted due to their Criterion approach, even if the technical presentation has its shortcomings. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Three Commentaries
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