Savage Streets (1983) -***
I recently took a friend of mine, a newcomer to the world of exploitation movies, to see The Exorcist. After the movie was over, she asked me if I thought being in a film like that at the age of twelve had warped Linda Blair in any way. Today, I’d like to draw your attention to a picture that could be construed as the answer to that question: Savage Streets.
This is pretty much the quintessential 80’s exploitation movie, in that it tries to operate within just about every single exploitation subgenre that was active at the time simultaneously! At its core, it is a Death Wish-style vendetta flick, but it also has features that the experienced bad-movie connoisseur will recognize from the slasher, gang war, post-apocalypse, women’s prison, and high school nudie genres. The only thing we’re missing here is a horde of flesh-eating zombies! Brenda (Linda Blair, who perversely was a better actress at 12 than she was at 22) is the leader of a small, all-girl gang called the Satins (or at any rate, the synopsis on the video box says they’re called the Satins-- I honestly don’t remember the subject coming up in the film itself). There are five other girls in Brenda’s crew: Francine (Lisa Freeman, who played a piece of Expendable Meat in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), her sister Maria (Luisa Leschin), token black girl Stella (Ina Romeo, who would not be seen again until Escape from L.A.), Rachel (Debra Blee, from The Malibu Bikini Shop, which should tell you a thing or two about her qualifications for this role), and Stevie (Marcia Karr, who had recently appeared alongside Linda Blair in Chained Heat). None of those girls, however, is as important to the story as Brenda’s deaf-mute sister Heather (everybody’s favorite 80’s scream queen, Linnea Quigley). Heather isn’t really part of Brenda’s gang, but she often tags along with them when they go out on the town looking for action, and she’s there on the night that the Satins get themselves embroiled in rather more action than they would have asked for, had they known what it would ultimately mean.
On this fateful night, the Satins run afoul of an even smaller, all-male gang called the Scars. This bunch of hooligans-- leader Jake (Spaceship’s Roger Dryer), strongman Fargo (Sal Landi, who would show up later in Xtro 3: Watch the Skies), reluctant new recruit Vince (Johnny Venocur, who was slightly better served by Lord of Illusions ten years later), and designated weasel Red (Scott Mayer, who never worked in film again)-- are out riding around in Jake’s ‘57 Belair convertible looking for trouble when they almost run Heather down. Fargo, who is behind the wheel, honks the horn at her when she starts straying into the road, but she, of course, doesn’t hear that. To make a long story short, the Satins spot Jake’s car parked by an alley a while later, while its occupants are off someplace selling coke to teenagers. So Brenda and her buddies steal the car and take it for a joyride right past the site of Jake’s drug deal, ultimately ditching it in another alley and filling it with trash from a nearby clutch of garbage cans after they lose the pursuing Scars, who have about as much luck catching up to them on foot as you might expect. The point is that all six Satins, plus honorary Satin Heather, are now on Jake’s shit list.
So Jake sets about taking his revenge with the utmost dispatch. Only a few days later, he and his boys corner Heather in the high school gym and gang-rape her while her sister is busy with a catfight in the shower room. (I’ll get around to the subplot that justifies this eventually, I swear.) The poor girl is close to death when one of the Satins (Francine, maybe? Apart from Stella, they all look the same to me...) finally finds her, and Brenda vows the expected revenge on the perpetrators, who are at this point unknown to her.
They won’t be for long, however, because the Scars pick that same night to stop by the Satins’ favorite hangout, the MX Club, where they try to force themselves on Francine, starting a full-fledged riot. In the process of making her escape, Francine slashes Jake in the face with his own switchblade, singling herself out for later retaliation-- retaliation which comes in the form of her being thrown to her death from an overpass the following afternoon. (Oh, by the way, did I mention that Francine was both pregnant and engaged to be married to the father of her fetus? In fact, she was walking home from the store with her wedding dress when Jake caught her.) Murder proves to be too much for neophyte Vince’s conscience, which had been bothering him anyway ever since Jake forced him to partake in Heather’s rape, and he decides that the time has come to break with the Scars and leave town. But first, he feels compelled to stop by Heather’s hospital room to apologize to his comatose victim. Just his luck that he does so right when Brenda also decides to check in on Heather. Brenda overhears his confession, kicks him around the hospital room for a moment, and then tracks him down later at his house to extract from him the identities and whereabouts of his accomplices. But first, Brenda puts on a skin-tight neoprene catsuit, dons some of the skankiest makeup you’ll ever see Linda Blair wear, and buys herself a set of bear traps and a crossbow with a telescopic sight from the nearby sporting goods store. (In Savage Streets’ first scene, while the opening credits are still rolling and the Satins are out painting the town red, we see them inexplicably stop in front of said store’s window to ogle the wide selection of bear traps and crossbows; this has got to be the most inept piece of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen.) Then, while Jake goes to kill Vince (I guess the guy has psychic powers, or something-- he sure as hell didn’t have time to learn that he’d been ratted out through the usual channels!), Brenda lures Red and Fargo into the big warehouse building in front of which the Scars like to hang out to plan the evening’s delinquencies, and we are treated to the spectacle of Savage Streets turning into a textbook slasher movie for a good ten minutes. When Jake returns to the warehouse and finds his lackeys trussed up Jason-style, with bear traps and crossbow bolts stuck all over them, his tough-guy act gets him only a little farther than it got his boys in the last scene-- he ends up covered head to toe in flaming paint, barbecuing to death as the cops surround the hardware store down the street from the warehouse, the place where Brenda makes her final play to avenge her sister. I tell you, it’s a good thing for Brenda that this is an 80’s vendetta movie, because if you or I had just killed three people and not managed to escape before the cops showed up, we’d have some serious jail time in our future. (Personally, I think the filmmakers passed up a wonderful opportunity here to do a sequel to Savage Streets as a straight-ahead women’s prison flick, but does anybody ever listen to me? Of course not…)
That’s the main thrust of the movie, anyway, but while all that’s going on (see, I told you I’d get around to it!), we’ve got this fucked-up subplot happening that allows Savage Streets to cover a few more of the 80’s exploitation bases than it would have had it stuck to the basic storyline. At the same time that Brenda is gearing up to give Jake and his boys (all of whom look like they got turned away from the casting call for Toe Cutter’s gang in Mad Max) the Charles Bronson/Jason Vorhees treatment, she’s also squaring off against her schoolyard arch-rival Cindy (Rebecca Perle, from the 1988 remake of Not of this Earth). This not only allows the filmmakers a chance to play the Porky’s card (as when Brenda rips off the other girl’s shirt in science class right after the clueless teacher discovers that somebody has vandalized his chart of the human reproductive system), it also gets us that all-important shower room catfight in the proud tradition of The Big Doll House. Of equal significance, it gets Brenda a visit to the office of the stern, warden-like Principal Underwood (John Vernon, who played the warden opposite Linda Blair in Chained Heat only a year before this was made!). This subplot is integrated into the main story by the somewhat inelegant means of having Cindy’s boyfriend Fadden (Judgment Night’s Sean O’Grady) owe Jake lots and lots of money for cocaine.
You see what I mean about Savage Streets playing every card in the 80’s exploitation deck? The more I think about it, the more amazing it seems to me that the people responsible couldn’t find a way to squeeze a pack of zombies in here somehow. (Maybe they could have located the school right next door to a breeder reactor like Nuke ‘Em High...) And the amazing thing is that it’s all completely serious! The only irony involved here is that which you bring with you! So to bring this review back around to where it started, yes-- I suspect Linda Blair came out of The Exorcist just a little bit bent. After all, something made her think Savage Streets sounded like a good idea.