Friday, July 31, 2020

Savage Streets / *** (1984)

Good comedies are a dime a dozen. Mediocre ones ride a crowded wave occupied by the most consistent of underachievers: the same school of filmmakers that persist in the tired trend of momentary gross-outs, sight gags and juvenile humor associated with the human digestive system. Unintentional ones, on the other hand, are another commodity – they come from that place of mistaken values that is sometimes so vacuous of common sense, we are left with no other solution than to howl in protest. Consider “Savage Streets” as an example of this latter classification, and you begin to see beyond what can otherwise be surmised as a god-awful “Death Wish” rip-off. Not a single scene of the movie is modulated as if it were in sincerity. Characters speak to each other in vulgar soundbites that are detached from rhythms of the moment, seeming as if they are merely hurling graphic vulgarities at dead space for effect. And then there is a notable sequence in which two teenage competitors – one played by Linda Blair – engage in fisticuffs in the middle of the girl’s locker room while their naked classmates bounce up and down in enthusiasm. In any ordinary movie, these would be prime examples of sheer tonal absence. But then you take them into the context of a full running time that is chock-full of after-school-special melodrama, hammy acting, hackneyed back stories, implausible scenarios, overzealous cruelty, laughable sentiment and trashy and implausible violence, and you begin to suspect those involved have set out to make the most hilariously bad movie of its time.

The year is 1984, when made-for-television movies are ebbing at a high popularity and theatrical offenses like “I Spit on Your Grave” and “The Lonely Lady” are casting doubts on the value systems of male directors intoxicated by thematic misogyny. The air of Hollywood’s back alleys is thick in exploitation, where once-reputable faces – like Blair – and yet-to-be-discovered new talents – such as Linnea Quigley – seek any sort of steady work that is feasible. Along comes a script that must have been stitched together out of leftover chunks of the more mainstream “revenge” pictures of the time, about a group of high school girls who discover the looming shadow of four male delinquents hovering over their hyperactive nightlife. All a girl wants to do, they say, is have fun. But rape and violence are never far from the minds of Jake (Robert Dryer) and his three perverted teenage henchmen, who ride around at night in their car to accost buxom females on the street before returning to their hideout in a textile warehouse to dish on their conquests. The object of their primary affections: Brenda (Blair), a streetwise high school senior whose entourage of pretty, smart-mouthed peers hover around her like a shield from their vulgar come-ons. Among them, unfortunately, is shy and sweet Heather (Quigley), Brenda’s deaf sister, who is blissfully unaware of the danger that follows: when she is left alone in a gymnasium the day after the girls trash Jake’s car, they abduct her, rape her in a bathroom, and leave her for dead. And so the seeds are planted for a pseudo-psychological sex war as the girls attempt to find the culprits, the men attempt to hide their misdeeds as one feels remorse, and poor Heather is left isolated in Intensive Care for the remainder of the picture, just so that she can recover in time for one climactic shot after vengeance has come and gone.

Did I give too much away? That would only go without saying for someone who has never been privy to a story of this creed. The primary shtick of vigilante justice yarns is not whether karma will be visited on the people who are responsible for the crimes, per se, but how ambitious their ends will come. Do the sinners of wanton sex crimes endure fates that are equal to or graver than what they exacted on their victims? Do they atone for their mistakes before fate comes for them, or do they go out screaming in protest? The whole air of this idea is rooted in medieval ideology. The more austere offenses, like the notorious “I Spit on Your Grave,” usually end in pain and suffering that is almost wince-worthy. Unfortunately for the characters in “Savage Streets,” they are only teenagers; that means their sense of “eye for an eye” theatrics is limited to awkward, long-winded methods that would feel more at home in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. To look at Blair, who is destined to enact this revenge in a series of scenes towards the end, you would assume something vicious. She is dressed head-to-toe in tight black, with a headband around her hair, leers suspiciously with eyes that glint in resentment at the camera, and taunts her would-be victims with groan-worthy puns (“I wish you were double-jointed, so you could bend back and kiss your ass goodbye”). Wouldn’t you expect a woman that angry, that street-savvy, to be using a switchblade or a gun to punish those who raped her sister? Of course not – the movie instead turns her into an archery expert, allowing her to shoot a crossbow through dark corridors with accuracy that would have made Robin Hood envious.

There is so much that gives the movie its nonsensical edge. Consider a subplot involving Francine (Lisa Freeman), one of Brenda’s closest friends, who has announced early on that she is pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. Teenagers, generally, are a mix of conflicting emotions when their body is ready to reproduce. So is not the case for young and hopeful Francine, though, who is overjoyed by the news; when she shares it with her beau, they plot to get married before buying a farm out in the country (yeah, right), and soon she off shopping for a wedding dress with her friends, oblivious to the difficulties that will follow her being a teenage mom. Unfortunately for her, the night before the big event, a run-in at the local club with Jake and his gang causes her to leave a scar on his face, which becomes the final trigger for his own volcanic temper. They chase her in the streets, corner her on a bridge and toss her over the side, all while she is still clutching the box that holds her bridal gown. Don’t you think at least one of the cars driving on said bridge might have stopped to intervene or at least inform the authorities?

Other precious morsels. After Brenda’s physical run-in with a cheerleader rival, the two are summoned to the Principal’s office and accosted by him in a diatribe that trails off into… a deliberate come-on? Later, the two exchange more words in a classroom, before the other girl jumps up and shamelessly refers to her sister as a “retard.” Notice how in scenes like these that no one ever stares straight on at one another while they are exchanging such platitudes; it’s as if they are so embarrassed by the material that they have to look away to prevent from breaking into hysterics. That may be less difficult for Blair, of course, given her track record in the years after “The Exorcist.” Here is a woman who managed to make “Hell Night,” “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” “Chained Heat,” “Roller Boogie,” “Airport 75” and “Night Patrol” in a short ten years leading to this film. Perhaps she developed confidence in being center stage of so much schlock. What she accomplishes in “Savage Streets” that no one else could have is exemplary: she does not dwindle or slacken from the heavy-handed details, and her zeal is almost infectiously campy at moments where she is forcing confrontations with her soon-to-be victims. Say what you will about over-the-top enthusiasm in movies like these, here is a woman who is comfortable chewing the scenery until she is licking her lips in satisfaction.

A great many of those films I listed, of course, are not nearly as amusing to sift through. The “Exorcist” sequel remains a boring and listless excursion into supernatural nonsense. “Night Patrol” is a comedy in which laughs only come when someone in the room yells obscenities back at the screen. “Roller Boogie” has the dubious distinction of making roller skate culture look like a slog through mediocrity. And “Chained Heat,” one of the most insufferable films I have ever seen, is best left remembered without involving it in active discussions. Yet here we are, talking about “Savage Streets” as if it were some bright spot in the whirlpool that was her late career. Perhaps that is because it has such aimless ambition. Maybe the idea of its grotesque revenge is sanitized into such harmless claptrap that it is harmless rather than offensive. Or maybe it is because the stars play up the absurdity until it transcends the awfulness of the pitch. We never turn away long from what they have to offer. Little of it is sincere or effective. And the male characters are the embodiment of every cliched nuance that comes with movie misogynism. But in the moment when they are penetrated by Blair’s arrows and her eyes widen in almost euphoric pleasure, we cannot help but find delight in the movie’s ability to raise ordinary behaviors into audacious, gleeful showmanship.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Thriller (US); 1984; Rated R; Running Time: 93 Minutes


Cast:
Linda Blair: Brenda
Robert Dryer: Jake
Sal Landi: Fargo
Scott Mayer: Red
Johnny Venokur: Vince
Linnea Quigley: Heather
Lisa Freeman: Francine

Produced by John L. Chambliss, Michael Franzese, George Kryssing, Cleve Landsberg, Heidi Schulte, Jay Schultz and John StrongDirected by Danny Steinmann and Tom DeSimone; Written by Norman Yonemoto, Danny Steinmann and John Strong

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