Savage Streets (1984)
Say what you will about Linda Blair, but there’s no denying that when it came to shedding her image as an innocent little girl, she went all the way. There have been other examples of female child stars transitioning into adult roles by taking risqué parts. Several, in fact, were former Disney employees. What set Blair apart was her willingness to participate in very dark films. It makes sense that her career-making role in The Exorcist (1973), where she was possessed by a literal demon, would beget many films depicting ‘teens in trouble.’ It’s not that she was ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ She was more like ‘America’s Unlucky Damsel in Distress.’ She’d continue to play a variation on the ‘good girl plopped into a dangerous situation’ well into her teens and early 20’s. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, but one glaring aspect of her early adult roles in Roller Boogie (1979) and Hell Night (1981) was each film’s attempt to portray her as an irresistible object of desire. It’s laid on so thick that it becomes tiresome and downright desperate. Don’t get me wrong. She’s lovely, but it always bothered me that men fixate on her to an exaggerated level. Since she became one of the most famous young women in the world by the early 70’s, I assume that as it became clear she wasn’t an incredible actress who could shoulder the burden of an entire film, her management came to a decision. Let’s make her a sex symbol.
The minute I saw Danny Steinmann’s name come up, I said out loud, “Oh shit!” I’m cool with Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985), but watch Crystal Lake Memories (2013). The dude does not have a sparkling reputation. In the near 7-hour documentary on the Friday the 13th saga, the one constant among the participants is their utter dislike of Danny Steinmann. All of the other directors in the series are either highly praised or regarded as non-problematic. Steinmann, on the other hand, sounds like a nightmare on set. That said, his direction of Savage Streets (1984), depending on how much he actually did direct, is very effective. The film works as an outrageous piece of vigilante trash cinema that is much smarter than it has any right to be. The characters are rich and far less disposable than its many counterparts. Thanks to the actors' absolute commitment to the pure nastiness of the whole shebang, the film is a bracing shot of tequila and a pool cue broken over some jabroni’s head after looking at you sideways. The dialogue is delectable and the violence, while often repugnant, carries a certain power all its own.
“Eleven o’clock, goddamnit!” yells a pissed-off dad to his gawky kid Vince (Johnny Venokur) as he leaves the house. He quickly ditches his simple threads for a cool leather jacket as rejects from the touring company of Grease show up in a Chevy Coupe to pick him up. The leader, Jake (bad guy extraordinaire Robert Dryer) has a razor blade earring, so you know he’s not to be trifled with. Fargo (Sal Landi, who would have a long career in B-movies and on television) and Red (Scott Mayer, who would not) drink beer and yell at babes. It’s like they’re hanging on the passenger’s side of my best friend’s ride, tryin’ to holla at me, but I digress. They’re cruising and checking out the fine ladies on the streets of L.A. Most of the characters act like they’re from Brooklyn, but I assume that’s how all tough kids talk. John Farnham’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in our Way” blares in the background and I’ve gotta say, the soundtrack is awesome. Most of the lyrics are way too on-the-nose, but it’s pretty bangin’.
One very dynamic and very happening buncha chicks sashay down the sidewalk, led by their leader, Brenda (Blair), wearing sunglasses at night and a see-through top. The level of camaraderie and chemistry among the opposing gangs is pretty outstanding. It's as if they’ve known each other forever and they feel like real friends and compatriots. Way later, we see the ladies wearing hot pink jackets with “Satans” printed on the back. I’m not saying all gangs commit crimes, but if you’re going to call yourself “The Satans,” I assume you’d do more than ogle a Playgirl (check out the schlong on him!), stare at hunting equipment, guzzle peach brandy, and get ice cream.
That peach brandy is a particularly big no-no since Brenda has decided to take her deaf sister Heather (scream queen Linnea Quigley) on this nightly excursion. She’s super protective of Heather, whose innocence is so pure she’s like a walking snowfall. If you're familiar with the work of Ms. Quigley, then seeing her as the picture of virginity is especially jarring considering her appearance in Silent Night, Deadly Night the same year as well as her iconic performance in Dan O’Bannon’s incredible Return of the Living Dead the following year. Linnea Quigley is quite an actress, but her stunt fall leaves something to be desired.
As The Scars, aka the ruffians in the Coupe, turn a corner, they nearly hit Heather, who somehow spins and falls backward onto the street. I find it amusing that the deliriously profane dialogue kicks into high gear as soon as ‘Directed by Danny Steinmann’ comes up onscreen. Brenda: "You goddamn motherfuckin’ morons!" One of the Latina ladies (Luisa Leschin) calls them “Puta Madres.”
Since most of these twenty-somethings are supposed to be high school kids, it’s a little vexing when Jake comes on to Brenda. How does he know her? She quickly rebuffs him, “sounds almost as good as drowning in a pool of vomit,” so they take their anger out on some random drug dealer who owes them money. This being a Danny Steinmann joint, we get our first of many, many topless scenes in under ten minutes. No offense to this young lady, but I don’t think she was cast for her acting chops. I’d argue that the dealer (former boxer Sean O’Grady) has less of an excuse, as his dialogue delivery hovers somewhere between a corpse and a zombie.
Brenda finds these “typical all-American dope dealers at work” to be petty scum, so they decide to steal their car. We’re never shown how they’re able to take it for a joy ride (hot wire?), but they do it and the gang is pissed. The Satans pile garbage all over the Coupe and abandon it, causing Jake to let out a ridiculously primal scream. He practically yells “Vengeance!”
At school, we’re treated to a gym class where Brenda and her crew engage in unenthusiastic calisthenics while their butch gym teacher Ms. Jenkins (Carole White, fine character actress from Laverne and Shirley and of course, Body Rock) balls them out. For some reason, the ladies are right up front, and yet Ms. Jenkins can’t hear them call her a “bitch” multiple times. I’m assuming one of the issues people had with Steinmann was his strict ‘No Bras Allowed' policy. Some preppie douche named Wes (Brian Frishman) shows up so he can watch the reincarnation of Helen of Troy, also known as Brenda, swivel her hips. Resident blond bitch Cindy Clark, played with perfect idiotic snobbery by Rebecca Perle, gets super jealous. We get a very long and lascivious dolly along two rows of naked women showering. Pretty much a carbon-copy of Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976) opening, but done way worse. What’s amusing is that the two rows feature completely nude women and then we settle onto the main stars, who are all mostly clothed. Considering Steinmann and the original director both worked in porn before ‘going legit,’ I think we can guess where they got so many ladies willing to doff their knickers for a shot at stardom.
“Not so fast, you little whore,” says Cindy, blocking Brenda’s way. Heather is waiting for her in the gym, so Brenda has no time to deal with Cindy’s petty bullshit. In an amazing exchange, Cindy accuses Brenda of trying to steal Wes from her, which is patently untrue, and Brenda asks, “that faggot?” which is very unexpected, but hilarious. Cindy is desperate to get a rise out of Brenda, who doesn’t give a flying fuck. She calls Cindy a “stupid stuck-up cunt,” not the first time the c-word will be used in this film, and then informs her that “I wouldn’t fuck him if he had the last dick on Earth.” Cindy can’t take it anymore and just screams her head off before lunging at Brenda. An epic catfight ensues, which also includes two completely random naked women having their own fight in the background.
Back in the school hallway, the rest of the Scars show up to take Vince out of school. Enter John Fucking Vernon as the principal. I practically stood up and saluted. You just know he’s got no patience for these punks. The dialogue just gets better and better. Jake tries to fuck with Vernon, who retorts, “Go fuck an iceberg!” Brilliant. Then, just for a little mustard on that shit sandwich, he makes a helpful suggestion. “Why don’t you take your faggot asses out of here before I feed them to the cops?” Vernon clearly shot all of his scenes in a single day, but he makes them count. Brenda and Cindy go to Vernon’s office and after he dismisses Cindy, he says something that absolutely would not fly today. Swearing is one thing, but he thinks it behooves him to inform Brenda that, “You’re a bright girl. You’ve got a pretty face. A good figure.” Wow, unbelievably inappropriate. Then again, she lights up a cigarette in his office, so I guess… The boys retreat and leer at a cheerleading squad with the weirdest cheer I’ve ever heard. “Our backs are breaking, our skirts too tight, our hips are shaking, from left to right, to the left, to the right, to the left, right, left...” I have no words.
They notice Heather head into the gym and we’re treated to a sweet but weird sequence where she twirls around, presumably because she wants to be a dancer. This is later confirmed by some ballet slippers in her bedroom. Since we’re literally informed on one version of the Savage Streets poster that she was raped, we know what’s coming. I admit though, the way it comes about is viciously unpredictable. Red enters the gym alone and actually seems to charm Heather. It goes on for a very long time. It’s not boring, but it’s off-putting because you’re suddenly not certain where this scene is going. He even gently and tenderly kisses her, before going for the gusto with a rough kiss on the lips, prompting her to run. How long the rest of The Scars had to stand outside those gym doors, I have no idea. It must have been a while. I’d compare Steinmann’s depiction of rape to the work of Michael Winner. Winner, a garbage person, was admittedly a solid filmmaker but his worst crime was deliberately making rape scenes as elaborate as possible, with copious amounts of full frontal nudity. What makes this scene disturbing is that Heather literally can’t scream. They force Vince to rape her first, which he doesn’t want to do, but he eventually complies. The movie at least cuts away multiple times to the fight between Brenda and Cindy. One bit of trivia is that Steinmann spent an exorbitant amount of time working with The Scars, so a moment like the one in which Fargo kisses Jake smack on the lips feels highly improvised but also surprisingly character-driven.
Unable to find Heather, one of the ladies calls out for her, which is hilariously mocked, “Heather’s deaf, you dumb shit!” They find her in the bathroom and we next see a sign that reads ‘Doctors Hospital.’ As opposed to what? A hospital with no doctors? Perhaps monkeys? Plus, the sign looks like it belongs on the front of a hardware store with its cursive lettering. The ladies adjourn to the MX Club, where the band and the clubbers get an huge amount of coverage. As per usual for every movie scene set in a club, no one ever needs to raise their voice while having a serious conversation despite the rockin’ tunes going on in the background. Francine, who is getting married by the way, despite still being in high school, lets the group know that “I’ve got to go to the bathroom so bad I’m gonna have to wring out my socks.” Most of the reasonably diverse group of ladies are interchangeable, but the second-in-command Francine is probably the second most enjoyable here. She’s played by Lisa Freeman, who would appear in some big movies, including Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) and twice as a friend of Lea Thompson’s in the first two Back to the Future films.
Unfortunately, The Scars also frequent the MX Club, and they randomly grab a waitress and then Francine to tempt a clearly disturbed Vince into raping another lady. A fight breaks out in which Francine grabs a knife and slashes Jake. He’s upset, but I don’t see what the big deal is. Their name is The Scars. She just did him a favor. It’s also a weird scar. Her slash looks more like a screwdriver poke that ran down his cheek.
More antics at the most free-thinking high school I’ve ever seen take place. This scene seriously has no purpose, but it at least gives us a chance to savor the thespian prowess of poet Richie (Richard DeHaven, I presume because like Tony Danza, he won’t answer unless it’s his real name). He recites the following: "Disco sucks. Punk is dead. Gimme rock, or give me head." This should result in an immediate visit to the principal’s office, but instead, the English teacher tries to make this part of her lesson plan, with disastrous results. The teacher tries to console Brenda, whose tough exterior she presumes is just a guard to hold back her real feelings. In one of Blair’s best scenes, she tells her off and it’s a satisfying reminder that adults don’t know what kids have to go through, despite these ‘kids’ being way too old for high school.
More useless but highly amusing bits in their next class, Science, or rather, Sex Ed. I’m sure the students will conduct themselves in a respectful, orderly manner. The reproductive chart has been vandalized and Cindy thinks Brenda is hitting on Wes when he’s clearly the instigator. “Fuck off, bitch.” What’s amazing about this part is that the preceding scene where The Scars meet up to plan an ambush on Francine features Jake calling Heather a ‘retard.’ You’d think another use of the word would get spaced out, but nope, Cindy busts it right back out and yet another cat fight begins. This time Cindy’s top gets ripped off. Why? I’m afraid to ask since I worry that Danny Steinmann will smack me in the back of the head with a dildo. Back once again in the principal’s office, John “Dean Wormer” Vernon is a consummate prick, suspending Brenda and calling her a “tough little bitch.”
Francine tries on her dress, loves it, and heads for her rehearsal, I guess. It seems to take place in a clubhouse of some kind where everyone is waiting. The Scars give chase and she ends up on a bridge. Crap. Jake has promised Vince that they’re just going to scare her (remind me why they let Vince hang out with them?), but Jake gets pissed, hoists her above his head, and tosses her over the side. Fargo caps the scene by throwing the dress down with “here comes the bride, all drenched in red.” This is pretty unbelievable since it’s broad daylight and they're on a huge bridge where we definitely see cars passing by. This once again begs the question, is this really meant to be set in L.A.? You sure it shouldn’t be New York, where a flying gremlin can attack somebody and people just keep walking? Vince has had it. Scrunching his face up, he screams at Jake, “I HATE YOU!!!!” He runs off and now they’re worried he’s going to talk. Instead of going after him in, oh...maybe their car(?), they drive in the opposite direction.
The film really wants to be deep. Instead of making Linda Blair the character who is going through some major life changes, Vince is seen running as visions of the rape dance through his head. He arrives at the hospital and does a weird duck walk to Heather’s room. Brenda shows up to visit and hears Vince confessing to Heather. Again, as Richard Pryor said, “She’s DEAF. Not STU-PID.” We finally get some eye-bulge acting from Blair, her specialty, and Vince runs off.
A gratuitous shot of Brenda sitting in a tub smoking is followed by a Schwarzenegger-esque action star suit-up and her exit from the sporting goods store from the opening credits. She’s carrying a rather large bag and I doubt it’s for cosmetics. The soundtrack informs us: "There’s a time for revenge and your time has come!!" Thanks for the reminder, John.
Jake drops Fargo and Red off at some kind of warehouse while he goes to “take care of” Vince. I guess this is their hideout or lair. They chat about what boys their age must chat about, namely sloppy seconds and Francine taking flying lessons into cement. There’s a loud clang and we hear Brenda shout, “Welcome home, assholes.” She literally has designer arrows on her thigh. Goaded to follow her, they head into the warehouse, where they can hear her taunting them. Fargo calls her a “fuck bitch.” A fuck bitch? The c-word is thrown out again, as well as allusions to ‘hiding the salami.’ Fargo lets Red know the “cunts got this place booby-trapped” when he notices literal bear traps on the ground. Fargo gets an arrow through the throat. The movie has no shame as Red starts to ask out loud, “Where’s the pussy?” He’s caught off-guard by Brenda, who fires her arrow and he falls back. It’s a weird cut until you realize he must have fallen on the bear traps. Would’ve liked to have seen that, but it was probably a tricky effect to pull off. I’m thinking they’ll both need a trip to the ‘Doctors Hospital.’
Jake tracks down Vince as he tries to skip town. He runs him over, even though Vince just stands there waiting for the car to hit him rather than running. Steinmann doesn’t seem to know how to stage action very well. Jake goes back to the warehouse to celebrate and Brenda scores two direct hits to his thighs. Considering this is really close to his femoral artery, I’d have expected him to bleed out pretty quick instead of what comes next, but he tries to stumble after her anyways. He gets snagged by a rope trap and hangs upside down. She compares him to a pig in a slaughterhouse and threatens to cut his balls off, but he’s able to break free. This scene feels a bit on the long side, but regardless, they end up in a paint store. She douses him in flammable paint and lights him up. It’s a decent ‘man on fire’ scene except that you can see the stuntman wearing a mask. It looks like Michael Myers on fire. A cop shows up and Brenda just stands there. I assume that since she murdered three people in cold blood she’ll be heading straight to jail, but instead we find Brenda, Heather, and the rest of the Satans visiting Francine’s grave. She claims the group made things right, to which they respond that she was the one who made things right. Although we know it’s supposed to be a sign of respect, I can honestly say that I bet Brenda is just out on bail and awaiting trial. The rest of the group has no desire to go down for what one member of their crew did all by herself. She’s definitely going to jail.
X-rated director turned somewhat legit Tom DeSimone had already directed Linda Blair in Hell Night and although the original lead, The Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie, apparently shot at least a day’s worth of scenes, she was replaced (or quit). The cast was very surprised when Academy Award-nominee Linda Blair showed up on set. Original producer Billy Fine and DeSimone left the project soon after the casting change and Steinmann stepped in to direct and rewrite Norman Yonemoto’s script. Briefly shut down by SAG, producer John Strong bought interest in the project and, displeased with Steinmann’s script, did his own rewrite and even directed a good deal of the film himself.
There are a ton of goodies to be gleaned from the tumultuous behind-the-scenes info. John Vernon originally had a much larger role, including being part of a police investigation. Steinmann supposedly had less than a day to rewrite the script, which seems a bit apocryphal, but it also turns out that for the BBFC release of the film, a whopping 24 minutes were cut, practically a third of the runtime. The producers of the film include Michael Franzese, a former Mafioso who “quit the life” to produce movies. There were rumors going on around set that the film was being financed by “wise guys from Chicago.” Could it be the guys from Raw Deal (1986)? It also appears that two different movies were being shot since Strong’s rewrite was a Hatfield and McCoys concept, hence the different gangs, but this aspect is minimized in favor of the revenge plot. According to a Blu-ray commentary track, John Strong bemoans Steinmann’s unprofessionalism on set and he claims to have edited the entire film, even barring the director from the editing room.
What I can surmise from the various sources associated with the film is that the combination of a low-budget, a professional but strict producer, and an unpredictable director who cared less about time and money and more about allowing his actors to find their characters through helpful but expensive improvisation led to a troubled production. Still, the garish colors (thanks to veteran horror cinematograher Stephen Posey, who lensed Bloody Birthday, Blood Song, Friday the 13th Part V, and the immortal classic The Slumber Party Massacre), nasty dialogue and huge, bugged-out performances make Savage Streets essential viewing for any lover of deliciously trashy B-movies.