I watched Danny Steinmann’s Savage Streets (1984), knowing nothing about it besides what I’d seen in the trailer, with a friend who admitted to “not understanding” this kind of film – what he’d earlier described as “shitty exploitation”, films which aren’t ‘proper’. Watching the film, he laughed and gasped consistently, thus proving that there is no challenge in ‘getting’ films like this, the problem are those who lump all exploitation films in the same so-bad-it’s-good group.
There are elements of Savage Streets which aren’t good. On a technical level, it’s not brilliantly put together – often the editing is incoherent, the plot ludicrous, the dialogue and acting shambolic, and there are mildly offensive undertones to the presentation of almost everyone – but this, as with so many other cheap thrillers is part of the charm. No matter how many sterile A-listers tell you they had a great time making their latest Christmas cash-cow, no-one seems to be having as much pleasure as those appearing in films like this.
Linda Blair spits out her most venomous dialogue with complete conviction, she strides proudly, almost making the stunning 80s hair and costume look like the height of cool, and her butterball nose and sweet, rounded cheeks nicely compliment her melodramatic turn to savagery, crossbow and all. Hers is a female avenger dissimilar to many of the 70s and 80s – one unforgettably youthful, wide-eyed and motherly. It’s as if your younger sister is playing at being a criminal – and convincingly so.
Elsewhere, John Dryer is oddly magnetic despite his performance consisting of a series of physical tics and a muddled accent. He remains a completely dislikable villain, and it’s this play of extraordinarily bombastic stereotype and performance which keeps the film watchable so watchable. In a scene of dripping neanderthal masculinity, one of the film’s best, Dryer’s Jake is forcibly told to “fuck an iceberg” by veteran character actor John Vernon.
The dialogue may not quite be Ibsen, but there is an honesty in filmmaking like this which allows anyone open-minded enough to let prejudice fall aside and just enjoy the mere existence of the film. This isn’t to say that all grindhouse films are inherently good (this is a popular posing stance to take since Quentin Tarantino popularised the term in 2007) but on occasion an underground film like this wipes the floor with so many soulless and expensive Hollywood money-spinners – I’d take Savage Streets over Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008) any day – and often – though this isn’t the case here – the less-popular film is far more intelligent and insightful. Both films are of course made centrally for the profit, but despite one being made more proficiently it lacks a crucial sense of fun.
There’s a stylishness to the hyperbolic visuals, narrative and John Carpenter-esque soundtrack (though John Farnham’s stirring power-ballad “Justice for One” is the film’s centerpiece) and a real joy of expression with the plot and camera which both serves to make the film that much less believable and so much more pleasurable.
Savage Streets is a film which makes one remember what fun it is to have a camera, to shoot something cheap, quick and silly. If you can find a copy of Juan Piquer Simon’s brilliant Pieces (1982), soon to celebrate its 30th anniversary, you have a great double-bill.
DVD features include three commentaries, one with the ever-listenable and optimistic Linda Blair, and a series of actor/producer interviews, alongside the film’s terrific trailer.