Savage Streets (1984)
By: Mr Intolerance on June 8, 2010  | 
BCI | Region 1, NTSC | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 93 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Danny Steinmann
Starring: Linda Blair, Robert Dryer, Sal Landi, Johnny Venocur, Scott Mayor, Linnea Quigley, John Vernon
Screenplay: Norman Yonemoto, Danny Steinmann
Country: USA
External Links
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How best to describe Savage Streets to an audience unfamiliar with its myriad "charms"? Ms .45 meets I Spit On Your Grave dressed like Pat Benatar, beating up Class Of 1984 in the back streets of LA is my best attempt. Laden with laughs both intentional or not, riotous overacting and covered liberally with an at times vicious and nasty layer of sleaze, Savage Streets oscillates wildly between the cheesy and the reprehensible, sometimes uneasily combining the two to a pretty twisted effect. Producer John Strong claims that the film is a serious piece of anti-violence social commentary, but frankly I couldn't say that about Savage Streets and keep a straight face.

This infamous rape/revenge tale had a troubled birth – after casting was finalised (Linnea Quigley claims Linda Blair was brought in at the last minute to replace ex-Runaways singer-turned-actress Cherie Currie, but nobody else mentions it in the special features that I heard), rehearsals had taken place and a few days of shooting, the production had to shut down due to lack of funds. Enter producer John Strong with "a bag of money", according to co-star Robert Dryer. The script is substantially re-written (a lot of the famous lines in the film are apparently Strong's), the shoot is sped up, the finished film is initially given an X-rating by the MPAA and Strong flies to New York with his back broken in two places to argue the point with the censors. He must have been pretty convincing, because the film is reduced to an R-rating without making any cuts. It does moderate business on cinematic release due to distribution issues, but gains a substantial cult following when released on video. BCI have now struck a new anamorphic transfer from the negative, and so Savage Streets rides again!

Brenda (Linda Blair looking a little too long in the tooth to credibly play a high-school student) is a bad girl with a sensitive side when it comes to her deaf-mute little sister Heather (horror/exploitation veteran Linnea Quigley in an early role). When Brenda and her gang, dressed like a bunch of "Like A Virgin"-era Madonna's worst nightmares take sweet-as-pie Heather out for a night on the town, the poor young thing narrowly avoids being run over on the street by a car owned by Jake (Dryer), leader of the Scars, a right bunch of arse-holes dressed like a low-rent early 80s punk band (razor-blades as earrings? Oh, puh-leeze). Some sailor-talk passes between the two gangs (Brenda: "You god-damned motherfuckin' morons!"), and when the girls later find Jake's car unattended, they decide stealing and trashing it is a wise idea.

It isn't.

It doesn't really take Jake and his cronies all that long to work out who's responsible (driving past the fellas yelling and screaming at them was a bit of a giveaway), and so they decide to take matters into their own hands. This one act of vandalism on the girls' part (and really, you can understand them wanting revenge for the near-slaying of the all-but-defenceless Heather) and their not thinking of the possible consequences of pissing off a violent psychotic gang sets some pretty horrible wheels in motion, with absolutely everyone paying for what has been done. An accident caused by bad luck and ignorance rather than deliberate malice spirals completely out of control and all sense of proportion – once the Scars gang-rape and savagely beat Heather, we know that Brenda will do all she can to try to make them pay, but we also know that other, innocent parties will be taken down in the attempt – a revenge tragedy demands that others who don't deserve it die with them – that's a recipe as old as Seneca and Euripides' tragedies of blood from ancient Rome and Greece. The Scars equally feel that they are above retribution for their acts, and that blind arrogance bordering on hubris mixed with their inflated sense of machismo leads them to much badness.

Francis Bacon once said that "Revenge is a kind of wild justice", and Savage Streets is certainly a film that proves that statement to be true. From the moment the film begins and we see nice kid Vinnie (Venocur) trying to fit in with the obnoxious Scars, we really just want to see them all die. Preferably in a vat of acid that's on fire. Loud, boorish and with a stormtrooper mentality toward the fairer sex, they embody every reason why I firmly believe that there ought to be a law that prevents carloads of young dickheads from "cruising" in such a fashion. I kept trying to work out whether or not Vinnie was meant to represent us, sucked in by the glamour of violence and the allure of being a bad boy, but ultimately getting in way over his head (early in the film we can see his revulsion to the gang's shaking down of a client of theirs who's late to pay his drug debt, and their casual molestation of the fella's girl), or we were meant to see him kind of like the Matthew character in I Spit On Your Grave – at first to be pitied for his lack of perception in hanging around and wanting to be liked by a bunch of pricks who make fun of him, ultimately to be held in contempt for actions he commits because he's told to – the old Nuremberg defence of "I was just following orders." His lack of physical stature, as much as Matthew's lack of awareness, is a sign of how he's not capable of dealing effectively with the situation he's gotten himself into.

Mind you, the girls are initially pretty hard to sympathise with – just as obnoxious and strutting arrogantly down the main drag like they own it, exuding bad-girl "cool", shrieking and cackling like drunken harpies. It's that very cock-sure superiority and general feeling of invulnerability that leads to Brenda's decision to steal Jake's car and go joy-riding – but then again, they could never have guessed to what extent Jake and the Scars would go to, to make them pay. Brenda's mother-bear protectiveness about Heather is also established very firmly in the opening scene – oh, and remember the army surplus store with the crossbows and bear-traps in the front window, because you'll be seeing it again before the film is over. Look at the picture on the slip case, pal. There's no real audience point of sympathy in the girls' group to begin with, although they (with the exception of Brenda) soften visibly as the film progresses, and as the threat of brutal treatment at the hands of the out of control Scars becomes all-too-real. Heather (and Quigley does bring a load of sympathy to the dialogue-free role) is too good, too much the bewildered, frightened innocent, and Brenda is too hard for either of them to really represent us – although Brenda does become the embodiment of our wish to see this "wild justice" done. And by the end of the film, we want to see it done as viciously and as brutally as she can possibly hand it out.

And what would an exploitation film be without some nudity? The girls shower-room scene is one of the reasons this film was censored on its initial VHS release in Australia – I guess the censors were a little nervous about showing a lot of totally naked women who were meant to be high school students. The violence later on in the film was also trimmed, I hasten to add, but here we get the sub-plot that allows us to see Brenda's propensity for violence – foreshadowing what eventually happens. Y'see Brenda's been accused of trying to steal dim-witted jock Wes away from uber-bitch Cindy, a snide and bossy cheerleader. When Cindy confronts Brenda about it in the showers, we get a wet t-shirt catfight, which while it doesn't scale some of the dizzying heights of a Jack Hill WIP film (the mud-fight in The Big Bird Cage springs to mind), it still ups the sleaze ante pretty effectively. The fallout from the fight leads to Brenda being blamed for beginning it, her being a bad girl and all, and she has to see the principal.

There are some things that make a good movie even better. One of those things is the awesomeness in human form that is the steely presence of John Vernon. Vernon you would recognise from countless film and TV appearances, even if you don't know him by name (Dean Wormer from Animal House, for one, and if you haven't seen that film, then I hate you), almost always as an authority figure – a mayor, a police chief, a District Attorney, or, as in this case, a principal. He just has that feel about him; you buy him in those roles – a great character actor, and one sorely missed since he passed away in 2005. He adds a certain gravitas to his serious roles, even though he always seems to be somehow a bit shifty, in this instance positively sleazy, when he compliments Brenda on her figure. His bizarre, if not actually baffling line to the Scars, "Go fuck an iceberg!" never fails to have me in hysterics, he delivers it with such conviction.

At the same time as the fight, another plot device is revealed – Brenda's best friend Francine is getting married (seeing as she's still a high school senior, this strikes me as a little odd, although the revelation that she's pregnant tends to make it more understandable). You'd better believe this happy event is very soon tied into the rapidly escalating tragedy around Brenda and her friends. That tragedy is further exacerbated by the Scars' assault of poor deaf/mute Heather. While Brenda is otherwise engaged, this pack of arseholes take it in turns to humiliate, rape and beat her, making Vinnie join in on act he obviously enjoys voyeuristically, but does not want to physically engage with. Apparently the scene was an extremely difficult one for Quigley to perform (I can't say as I'm surprised – it is positively vicious and very uneasy viewing – the physicality of it must have been horrific), and is one of the reasons the film has the notoriety it does. If you can watch this without wanting to kill all of these men instantly, you are a stronger person than I. The level of degradation doesn't quite hit the rock bottom abjection of I Spit On Your Grave or Irreversible (nothing does, or can), but the sense of humiliation and torment is akin to the similar scenes in the first two Death Wish films, but the even more graphic depiction than those two movies makes it a pretty squalid viewing experience. Heather's defencelessness and total terror just makes it even worse. The exaggerated masculinity of the scene – the interplay between the Scars (it's a bonding moment for them, horribly enough) is positively stomach-turning – I was grinding my teeth and baying for blood by this point.

"It's up to us to makethingsright."

There are no leads as to who has hospitalised Heather, but Brenda and the girls know that given the situation, they have to take the law into their own hands. Vinnie, on the other hand, sickened at what he's been party to wants to distance himself from the Scars. They are having no part of this, and with a monstrous sort of good humour, try to line him up at the local club, where Brenda and the girls are, with another pack-rape victim. Jake decides Francine is the girl for Vinnie, after some homoerotic behaviour between the boys for the second time – the misogyny of the film seems to find an uneasy home in this: the gang mentality and hatred of the feminine is emphasised through the almost hyperbolic masculinity of the Scars (I mean personally, I'd never kiss another man or grab him by the crotch, and I certainly wouldn't be holding on once his cock got hard, as we're told Vinnie's does). A barroom brawl quickly ensues, but the tension isn't dissipated. If anything, it goes up a notch.

A brief moment in a classroom ensues when studying poetry the link is made between sex and death. Now when looking at poetry – take Baudelaire for example in "The Death Of Lovers" – quite often you might examine death as "la petite mort", the little death, the feeling of exhaustion or contentment achieved after sex. Obviously here, Brenda has a more permanent state of death in mind for one of the participants, and a much more violent one – a brutal death to pay for brutal sex. And a total death rather than a metaphorical one. The ineffectual nature of the teachers in the school depicted seems to be representative of the ineffectual nature of authority figures full-stop. The police are useless, the students hold their teachers in pretty open contempt, parents are ignored – all of this is pointing to that other staple of the revenge tragedy – the corrupt society whereby the only justice that can be achieved is by your own hands, because the systems in place are incapable of achieving it. And that of course brings us back to that "wild justice" I was mentioning before. Brenda is slowly being wound up to breaking point – it's only a matter of time until things really come to a head.

Catfight #2 with Cindy sees Brenda victorious having humiliated her opponent, but suspended. Symbolically, if school represents society on a micro-scale, she's now outside of it and free to act as she sees fit. The Scars at the same time are looking to get revenge on pregnant Francine for an injury she inflicted on Jake during the fight at the nightclub. After chasing her (after she's just had a final fitting for her wedding dress – manipulative on the writers' part? Yes, I think so), Jake flings her over the side of a bridge to her death, upping Brenda's revenge ante exponentially. After all, as the tagline on the slip-case tells us: "They raped her sister…Killed her best friend. Now she must seek revenge!" Vinnie is horrified by the lengths the Scars have gone to in order to get revenge, but he is still one of them, and as ol' Jack Burton told us in Big Trouble In Little China, "Son of a bitch must pay!" Vinnie has bailed from the gang, but it's really too late for him to be trying something so transparent at this point. Because once Brenda finds out what happened…ooh fuck – there'll be some badness in the city that night, and distancing yourself from the pack of rapists you were attached to is not going to cut the mustard. Guilt is guilt, and that's that, particularly in the eyes of an audience who by this point are foaming at the mouth and wanting to see some justice. It's an interesting philosophical and psychological point that people who have been mortified by the violence perpetrated against the innocent up until now want to see that very same violence fall upon the heads of the guilty. People who would otherwise be reasonable, liberal-minded types opposing violent retribution, given the context of this film (like with Death Wish or Dirty Harry) turn practically reactionary and slaver for poetic justice like an Elizabethan crowd watching a production of Hamlet. Bestial violence calls for a bestially violent death. And Brenda is just the girl to provide it.

Vinnie turns up to the hospital to not so much apologise, but to make excuses for his actions to the comatose Heather. A more chicken-shit act I cannot even imagine. Brenda has turned up at the same time, to see how her sister is getting along. And so Brenda gets to find out who it was who rendered her sister practically comatose, and who she needs to vent her rage on. This is actually where synopsis-wise I'm leaving you, because the final act of the film is a joy to behold, and keen fans of vengeance like myself would hate to see the whole thing being spoilt. Suffice it to say that the last twenty-plus minutes of the film live up to it's reputation, and just think about that front cover with Brenda, her extraordinary 80s-style coiffure, and the crossbow (and what I was saying before about bear-traps), and what she might do with it – somebody's about to be put through Hell; watch and learn folks, watch and learn.
The picture is really quite good. The restoration job has Savage Streets looking about as good as it has since its initial release. Certainly the anamorphic 1.85:1 treatment is a thing of beauty to look at.
Similarly, the sound is more than adequate to the task. The soundtrack, however, is hilarious – featuring some of the worst music the mid-80s had to offer. I have to laugh at the inclusion of some John Farnham tracks – I'll guarantee he wouldn't be including them in his resume, and given his squeaky clean image, he wouldn't be drawing attention to his involvement in such a film – but it gets even worse with Real Life… There's some crackle and hiss at times, but that's a small complaint given the otherwise fine presentation we receive.
Extra Features
Get a load of this – you get three commentary tracks. The first one is with actors Sal Landi, Robert Dryer and DP Stephen Posey, the second commentary is with director and co-writer Danny Steinmann, and the third is with producer John Strong, and actors Robert Dryer and Johnny Venocur. That's a lot of talk and a lot of information about the film and its making. Commentary tracks can be a chore sometimes, especially when they aren't being moderated (although they are here), and to sit through three of them took some time. I like this film a lot, but I couldn't sit through it four times in a row to write this review, which I actually began writing about four or five months ago. There's interesting information on each of the tracks, some of which appears in the above review, and if you're a fan, like me, you'll find the time to sit and listen to each eventually.

One the second disc, there are a range of new interviews with actors Linda Blair (who appears to be turning bicep-wise into Linda Hamilton – a 17 minute interview, and well-worth your watching; she's very positive about the film, which is a refreshing change from actors putting distance between themselves and exploitation films), Linnea Quigley (who would apparently be lost without the words "like" and "y'know" – the articulation and vocabulary of a twelve year old), Johnny Venocur (irritating beyond belief – every cliched stereotype of a New Yorker rolled together under a pork-pie hat) and Robert Dryer (who can't stop laughing and doesn't really add much to the proceedings), as well as producer John Strong (who is a little more informative – well, a lot more, actually – and quite down to Earth). My only gripe with these interviews is that everyone spends a lot of time saying how much they loved each other, and how wonderful everybody in the cast and crew were – I don't know if that's just nostalgia, if it's genuine, or if everyone made some tacit agreement not to air dirty laundry, but I do find it hard to buy. Also, you get trailers for Savage Streets and Final Exam, a four page booklet of alternative art and a nice slipcase. It's a pretty comprehensive package, basically, over the two discs – but I still think three commentary tracks is excessive.

Linda Blair makes some reference to footage that didn't make it into the final cut of the film, but that doesn't appear here as "deleted scenes", sadly.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Essential exploitation, in my opinion. I've found that Savage Streets tends to polarise its audience into the "love it or hate it" camps. Me, I'm in the former. The odd thing is, I've found that if people don't like it, it's not because of the strong content, it's more because the film takes so long to get to that strong content. Personally, I think that's one of the film's strengths - I like a slow burn pacing when it comes to revenge stories as it throws the violence and the nastiness into very sharp relief. This version of the film is probably the best you'll find of it, so if sleazy exploitation and nasty tales of vengeance are your game, I can't promise that you'll definitely like it, but I honestly do think that you need to at least see it - I'd be tracking this down sharpish, if I were you. Savage Streets is a grim, powerful film that you won't soon forget.

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