I’ve been looking for this movie on DVD in stores for months now. Today, I went out looking for one exploitation movie at the re-sale shop and came home with another. Savage Streets is a cult rape-revenge exploitation film from the late director of Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning, Danny Steinmann. As previously documented, I have a low opinion of that sequel, but Savage Streets looked really good and promising via the trailer. I’ve heard some good things about it, and was very dogged about finding a copy of it. Sometimes, a good word of mouth is enough to convince you to take a impassionate chance on a movie. But now that I’ve seen it, does it live up to what I had hoped for it? Was it worth the months of anticipation and hunting I put into it? Well, let me impart a synopsis on you before answering that question.
Brenda (Linda Blair) is bad, bold and brash, but she absolutely dotes on her deaf-mute kid sister Heather (Linnea Quigley). After nearly being rundown by a gang known as the Scars, Brenda and her friends trash the car of their leader, Jake (Robert Dryer). Shockingly, he chooses to exact his revenge by getting his cohorts to gang-rape Heather. Caught up in her rivalry with the cheerleaders, Brenda is at first unaware of the Scar’s involvement, but is eventually shocked with the full truth. She then vows deadly vengeance in a skintight black suit as she searches out the gang members one by one.
Doing a blind buy of this movie was certainly taking a chance because I’ve had blind buys bite me in the ass before. However, that was not at all the case with Savage Streets. I did indeed greatly enjoy what I saw here. It is quite a low budget picture with only $1.2 million to its credit, but this was definitely a time where most filmmakers knew how to make an effective movie within their limited means. They could create something genuinely entertaining and worthwhile without needing a major budget. While his Friday The 13th movie came off like a cheap direct-to-video outing, director Danny Steinmann pulled off a really solid genre movie here that I’m glad he had been commended on long before his 2012 passing.
The main thing that I was impressed by on this film was Linda Blair’s performance. She strikes that perfect balance of a tough, attitude rich, yet still vulnerable and compassionate young woman. You see her make those subtle shifts early on as she defends her sister from an ill joke, but then, lightens the mood a moment later with some well place charm. Brenda will not back down from a fight, and doesn’t take any crap from anybody. She stands up to everyone from bitchy classmate Cindy to the sleazy school principal to, of course, this malevolent gang. She’s genuinely tough with the courage and mouth to back it up. Yet, these tragedies that befall her sister and friends have deep, emotional impact upon her. She cries, mourns, and grieves in her own harsh way while never veering away from her determination to find those responsible. Brenda is someone who has a surplus of strength to pull her through this violent series of events, and Linda Blair puts her all into this performance to make Brenda that great heroine. She’s also quite sexy and beautiful in this film, and her hard edged attitude is very attractive and exciting. Blair packs a lot of charisma and passion into what she does here, and she really makes Savage Streets the excellent piece of work it is. There’s not enough I can say about what she does in this role.
In the role of Jake, Robert Dryer does an exceptional job. This is the dead-on perfect villain for this film as Jake has zero redeeming qualities about him, and is a full fledged sleazy, violent, womanizing, severely intimidating thug. Just the look of the character gives you a very edgy impression with his slick backed hair, leather jacket, intense physical presence, and especially that razor blade earring. Dryer has some dark charisma which amps up the character to the utmost vilified levels. He definitely looks like someone who could snap your neck right after stabbing and slashing you to bits. Just as much as Linda Blair invests you in the story, Dryer invests you in the need to see Brenda exact her revenge. After all you see Jake do, and without an ounce of regret or mercy, you crave that violent comeuppance, and that is so much earned from Dryer’s performance.
The rest of the cast is very good putting a lot of enthusiasm and dedication to their roles. You’ll certainly find some over-the-top dialogue and line deliveries, but it wouldn’t be an exploitation film without them. John Vernon is excellent with his deep, intimidating, dramatic voice as Principal Underwood. He has this underlying sleaze factor that surely hits with a peculiar impact, but it’s all great. Johnny Venocur does some good work as Vince, the one guy in the gang who has a semblance of a conscience. You can progressively see the humanity taking a hold of him, and it adds a nice dash of remorse into this story. Lisa Freeman brings her own strength and spirit to Francine which shows she’s no pushover either, but you also get the tender side of her bride-to-be aspects. Genre star Linnea Quigley makes Heather very wholesome and sweet without ever saying a word. Linda Blair plays very sweetly opposite her bringing out that touching sisterly warmth and heart. On the darker side, Quigley achieves the moments of silent terror with visceral intensity. The entire sexual assault scene is powerful and disturbing, as it should be. The film does not glorify it at all as it is depicted as a traumatic, frightening experience, which is commendable. This is the darkest point in the film, but we are thankfully treated to some very enjoyable, entertaining elements throughout the rest of the movie.
What makes Savage Streets distinctly 80s is the awesome pop soundtrack. There are no big names that stick out for me, but the songs generally hit that excellent 80s vibe with strong vocals, vibrant keyboards, and a driving intensity. It also kills me that this soundtrack is available only on the original vinyl or audio cassette releases, and are rare collectors’ items. The only CD release was done independently in a very limited capacity. So, if you want these songs, you’ll have to turn to YouTube. The one notable track is “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way,” which is performed here by John Farnham, would later be covered by Canadian band Kick Axe (aka Spectre General) for Transformers: The Movie in 1986. The soundtrack for this movie really enhances the vibe all around making it a very rockin’ experience, but the original score is also very effective especially during the film’s climax.
The cinematography of Stephen L. Posey is very good and solid. It’s nothing amazing, but what he does entirely suits the gritty nature of this movie. The editing is also very tight never allowing the film to lag anywhere at all. The pace is kept consistent throughout, and has plenty of well put together sequences. On a technical level, this is a well shot, well made movie that is competently executed by knowledgeable talents. Furthermore, director Danny Steinmann does all around impress me with what he did here. There are a few minor critiques still pending, but on the whole, Savage Streets is a well written, well directed film for this genre. Steinmann really brought out a lot of strength and vibrancy from his cast, and crafted together an effective revenge movie that has emotional weight to it. It’s surely not one dimensional in the least, and I commend Steinmann and his co-writer Norman Yonemoto for that.
Now, the one thing that threw me off about the movie is that the trailer would make you believe that Brenda would be hunting these guys down through most of the movie. Instead, her armed quest for revenge begins in the final third of this 93 minute movie. I do not state this as a criticism, just as an expectations adjustment. The first hour of the movie is consistently and solidly paced as the Scars repeatedly terrorize Brenda’s friends and other unfortunate individuals. The film takes the time to build these guys up as increasingly more sickening people, and that’s saying quite a lot since their first act against Heather would be more than enough already. Yet, it layers the crimes and tragedies upon Brenda and the audience. It develops her character and her friendships so that you understand the importance these people have on her life and the lives of others. It also uses this escalation of violence to further drive a wedge between Vince and the other gang members, which is a smart idea. Now, once Brenda moves into full-on revenge mode, decked out in a sleek back jumpsuit and crossbow, I absolutely loved it! A great little montage ensues with a solid rock track behind it, and we’re into a pretty damn good final act.
The only criticism I have towards that final act is that while we do get blood and gore, it is not all at the right moments. Some of the deaths don’t have the desired satisfying impact because we don’t witness them in graphic or explicit enough detail. However, we do see the bodies displayed with their bloody wounds minutes later, but it wasn’t quite enough. Considering how explicit the film had been already up to that point with violence, language, and nudity, I figured we would get some graphic gore where it counted the most. Thankfully, this is not so for all the kills in the climax. It’s about fifty/fifty, but I really wanted to see those despicable scum meet some gruesome ends. Watching Brenda squaring off against Jake was thick with tension and emotion as that rage and pain within her really penetrates in this sequence. She is being blatantly sadistic, and you are really reminded of why she wants him to suffer so badly through her dialogue. Ultimately, we get a very tight climax with some great moments of suspense and dramatic pay-off.
Savage Streets is damn good! It’s especially gritty with visceral violence and a strong core of emotion by way of some solid performances. Linda Blair definitely stands out as an excellent lead giving us both the heartfelt compassion to be sympathetic and relatable as well as the brash attitude and confidence to be a convincing action heroine. I love the dialogue she gets on both ends of the spectrum which really reinforce the strength of Brenda. My favorite is the “double jointed” quip near the climax, which is also Linda Blair’s favorite. It hits me as one of the best lines in an action film, ever. Overall, Blair is just bad ass and awesome through and through. She delivers on all demands of the role in a very satisfying and entertaining performance. There’s a lot to enjoy in the tight 93 minute run time, and I really have to hand it to Danny Steinmann for the work he did here. This is a kind of movie that just doesn’t get made anymore, and even if they are, I imagine they aren’t made as good as this. I can entirely see here what brought Steinmann to doing a Friday The 13th movie. It’s only too bad that film was not remotely as cool and good as Savage Streets. This certainly may not be a film for everyone. As I said, it is very explicit and casual with its profanity, female nudity, and violence, but if that fits your tastes, I highly and strongly recommend checking out Savage Streets. While it was tough finding it in a store, it is easily obtainable on Amazon.com in a 2012 digitally remastered special edition DVD set.
This used to be the scariest movie I had ever seen. When it was theatrically re-released in 2000, I was paralyzed with fear in my theatre seat. When I saw it theatrically in 2010, the film barely did anything for me. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I have theories. Possibly a decade of exposure to numerous hardcore horror movies have hardened me as a movie-goer, thickening my skin and threshold for terror. By comparison, The Exorcist III has been a consistently effective film that I have gained more respect for with each viewing. This review is surely not a negative one in the least, but it’s important to know my experience with The Exorcist over the years.
Taking up temporary residence in Georgetown, Maryland is movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who is having her troubles. The script for the movie she’s filming seems inadequate, her ex, who is also the father of her adolescent daughter Regan (Linda Blair), neglects to call the girl on her birthday, and the attic has rats. Meanwhile, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and a psychiatrist, is losing his faith while dealing with a terminally ill mother who needs medical care he hasn’t the money to provide. Meanwhile, the sweet and innocent Regan has undergone a slow, brutal change in both the way she looks and the way she acts, with violent outbursts on everyone who comes in contact with her. Medical professionals prove to have no cure for her condition, and thus, her worried mother meets with Father Karras with the belief that her daughter is demonically possessed. She requests an exorcism, which Karras and the church are hesitant to grant on a whim. Another priest, the old and ailing Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), has just returned from an archeology expedition in Iraq with forebodings of evil. He has faced this unholy evil before, and soon, will have to face it again.
I believe the main aspect of the film that made it so effective was its realistic quality. William Friedkin shot this in a very textured way. Lighting is very natural and subdued. It never looks staged or stylized. Friedkin intended to take a documentary approach to the film to give it sense of grim realism. The scenes in Iraq are very gritty with an unsettling and harsh quality that is striking. The scenes in Georgetown have a slightly gloomy autumn quality that boosts the foreboding and grim nature of the movie. Yet, there is still eerie beauty at times such as the moment where “Tubular Bells” creeps into the score. Friedkin simply instills a lot of subtle atmosphere with the lighting, camera work, and the score that gets in under your skin. He uses the music very sparsely allowing that ambient reality to seep into your nerves. That realistic tone in the visuals and the performances solidly grounded the film, and thus, when these horrific changes begin to surface in Regan, they are all the more unsettling and chilling. The sound design is profoundly effective. These disturbing auditory elements are mixed in together at a high volume to truly jump out at you in an almost unnaturally loud way. It’s an example of using sound effects and design to establish an unnerving mood without resorting to a musical score, which supports the documentary feel Friedkin was going for, and it succeeds in spades.
Now, William Friedkin has been known to be quite the bastard of a filmmaker. Him firing guns on set, and throwing his actors into hard stunts to get a visceral reaction out of them are just a few reasons why. Personally, as a filmmaker myself, I don’t believe someone has to get hurt for the sake of art. There’s always another way to achieve the results you want. Still, regardless of how you view his methods, his results are very intense. He always casts great actors, and does some challenging work with them. With these actors, we are given a breadth of deep, hard hitting emotion that penetrates the characters’ souls. The struggles of faith with Damien Karras are portrayed with deep heartache and weariness by Jason Miller. You can empathize with his pain and fear as you see the dour aspects of his life. It is a powerful performance that Miller poured deeply into his soul to achieve. Ellen Burstyn put in a very warm portrayal that gradually morphs into something very raw and painfully emotional. The grief she expresses as Chris MacNeil is heart wrenching and soul tearing. It hits harder than anything in the film, and sells the terrible reality of the horrific situation she faces.
There is a fine, understated performance by Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William Kinderman. He investigates the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, the drunken director of the film Chris MacNeil was involved with. Cobb walks a fine line between earnest, probing investigator and kind-hearted soul. He surely makes assertive inquiries about this unusual death, but treads cautiously amongst these people. He questions as much as he observes them trying to decipher the deeper reality of what’s happening. This made the character very intriguing and just endearing enough to connect nicely with an audience. Cobb passed away less than three years after the film’s release, and was succeeded in the role in The Exorcist III by the acclaimed, powerhouse actor George C. Scott. Cobb laid a solid foundation that Scott strongly built upon in that excellent film.
However, the most understated, yet immensely captivating performance comes from Max von Sydow. While I feel the film could have benefitted from more time spent delving into Father Merrin, what von Sydow brings is substantially strong on its own. Merrin himself is a few decades older than von Sydow was at the time, and his acting as a frail elderly man is pitch perfect. He has a cautious grace in his movements and a sophisticated sensibility that comes with wisdom. The calmness and power he brings forth in the final act tell much about Lancaster Merrin’s soul. While he has his battle scars from a previous exorcism, his weathered soul still holds his faith and will solidly.
It’s also shocking and amazing what Linda Blair did in this role. She easily endears herself to an audience with her innocence and playful nature. She worked beautifully with Ellen Burstyn as a very natural mother-daughter relationship. Of course, it’s easy to overlook the performance after the possession since all her lines were overdubbed by the grizzled voice of Mercedes McCambridge, but what she physically does is immensely impressive. She was put through a lot of long hours in pain and deep cold to achieve what she needed to. Even the make-up prosthetics were a challenge that she would not subject herself to for the sequel. For being so young, only fourteen at the time of filming, she dedicated herself with a strong stability that should be highly admirable to any actor. The overall performance is quite amazing, and in the darker areas of the film, rather disturbing.
I find the make-up effects work to be very effective. As the possession gets worse, Regan’s flesh becomes cracked with open sores and discoloration. It looks like she’s almost rotting away due this demonic evil within her. The visuals of this can be disturbing to many viewers. While times certainly have changed greatly since the early 1970s where this had people fainting and throwing up during screenings of this film, it can still hold chilling weight today. It was a startling motion picture that blindsided audiences, and much of that is due to both those grotesque make-up effects and the style of editing. Quick flashes of the demon face are what frightened me for the longest time. It’s a face that sends chills all over me still. It’s something that nightmares are made of, and a haunting vision that would be terrifying to see peering out of the darkness at you, which is exactly what it does. It’s immensely effective, near subliminal trickery.
The Exorcist does give us a few sequences that establish something sinister or malevolent looming over these characters. Father Karras has an ominous dream sequence about his ailing mother that does haunt him. Also, Father Merrin staring down the stone statute of Pazuzu in Iraq has a fierce, raw unnerving quality which sets a foreboding tone early on. It’s also your preference whether to watch the original theatrical or extended edition. However, the extended cut does add in a couple of editing effects that throw that demon face into a few unsettling scenes. Lights are flickering in the MacNeil house, hinting that a powerful force is at work, and that fearsome visage does make a small appearance. Regardless of which cut you choose, the film truly is ripe with chilling moments that demonstrate the skillful quality of William Friedkin.
I will say straight out that I have no religious beliefs. However, I can still perceive and appreciate how deeply this film’s subject matter penetrates into an audience with them. In the least, it’s a film that explores a pure embodiment of evil that is able to corrupt even the most innocent among us. If this timeless, demonic evil could possess this pure of heart young girl in the context of such a grounded, hardened reality, many audiences easily could be rattled to their core. The Exorcist is just as much of a film that frightens with its visuals and sound as it does with its ideas. William Peter Blatty truly constructed a deeply detailed screenplay built off a novel written with the help of a real life priest. Everything was well researched and discussed where the church is concerned to understand exactly who these men of faith were, and the depth of knowledge with demonic possession and exorcism. All of that detail comes through in Friedkin’s film who even cast several real life priests in key roles. That casting was smart as they carry a certain weight and aura about themselves that is very natural. They truly added to the realistic strength of character through the picture.
I suppose my only criticisms upon the film are that I do feel that Lancaster Merrin could’ve been fleshed out more for us to have a better context and perspective on the man himself. He’s given a perceived poignancy in the film, but he ultimately has little poignancy to the story. I also believe that the ending feels a little shorted. With the grueling battle that Merrin and Karras were waging in that room during the exorcism, the conclusion did feel a little lacking in substantive pay-off. The ending to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III would end up being very grandiose, almost seeming a bit too over-the-top, but still, it had enough direct, dramatic pay-off to feel like a satisfying conclusion. With this film, there almost seems to be a lack of dramatic build-up to the very final moments. It surely doesn’t end how one would expect it to, which is a good thing, but let’s just say that the Merrin character again seems to be slighted. I can surely understand the idea that the film is more about Damian Karras, but Merrin is surely meant to be the climactic difference maker in this plot, yet he is dispatched with most unceremoniously. He is supposed to be the title character of the movie after all. Max von Sydow gave the character such immense depth with little to no dialogue that I felt he should’ve been a more purposeful element in the overall film, and given a proper story arc. He’s given enough setup and build up to support that idea, but ultimately, he’s not given that weight of relevancy. It’s just something that has regularly nagged at me with the movie. A little more time spent with Merrin could’ve helped create a more gradual transition into the third act, and perhaps, motivated Blatty and Friedkin to actually conclude his story on-screen. As it is, Father Merrin is more of a plot facilitator than a character with his own story to tell, and I believe that to be a negative mark against the screenplay and film.
While I supposed my skin has thickened over the years where horror films are concerned, I cannot discount the strength and quality of this film. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the horror elements here in the least. However, it can be difficult to judge if people still call this “the scariest movie of all time” due to just blind reputation, or because they truly, personally feel that way. Since the effectiveness of this film has lessened with me over time, and I have found new horror films that scare me more profoundly than this, I would have to question whether current audiences genuinely believe The Exorcist to be the scariest of all time. So, I suppose this makes for an unusual review. The Exorcist surely is an exceptionally well made film with intelligent themes and deeply frightening elements that have immense impact on a visual and auditory level. Yet, it doesn’t affect me remotely as much as it once did. Regardless, I cannot deny that it once did have a powerful effect on me, and likely still does on countless others.