Sunday, March 15, 2015

Streets (1990)

Directed by:
Katt Shea

Director Shea was born in Detroit and, after graduating from the University of Michigan and working a spell as a teacher, migrated to Los Angeles. While attending UCLA and doing some modeling work on the side, she began landing bit roles in A films like My Tutor (1982) and Scarface (1983), eventually moving her way up to supporting parts in several T&A comedies from the likes of Chuck Vincent and Lem Amero. That led to co-starring roles in several Roger Corman productions, including the shot-in-Argentina fantasy Barbarian Queen (1985) and the shot-in-the-Philippines action flick The Devastator (1986). But Shea wasn't content just having roles like “Mud Wrestler” and films like Hollywood Hot Tubs (1984) on her resume and all the while she was also writing (usually in collaboration with her then-husband Andy Ruben) and working behind-the-scenes on these movies. After “stalking” (her words, not mine!) Corman outside his office one day, Shea ran the idea by him for a movie that would eventually become STRIPPED TO KILL (1987). Because she'd previously shot second unit on another Corman production, had an idea with some potential and was persistent (apparently it took a year to finally get the green light), Corman eventually gave her her very first chance to direct. In the interim, she landed a supporting role as one of Norman Bates' victims in Psycho III (1986) and used that opportunity to learn what she could on set from observing star / first-time director Anthony Perkins and cinematographer Bruce Surtees while she was there.

The much-better-than-need-be Stripped debuted to surprisingly decent reviews and ended up making tons of money on cable and video for Corman's company. It also received additional press when star Kay Lenz complained about the film's exploitative ad campaign and new title (apparently it was called simply Deception when she'd signed on to appear). Nevertheless, because of its huge success, Corman would back four more films for Shea, including the stripper-meets-vampire gem DANCE OF THE DAMNED (1989), which garnered surprisingly good reviews itself, a 1989 Stripped sequel starring Maria Ford, which the director was ultimately somewhat displeased with due of producer / editing interference, and this one. Shea has stated in interviews that Corman never dissuaded her from her ambitions, but had stipulations all the while on certain aspects the finished product needed to contain. In short, they all needed to have violence and nudity for the direct-to-video market for which they'd be doing the majority of their business. Shea and Ruben (who often also produced these films) rose to the challenge of not only giving Corman what he wanted but also making movies that were thoughtful, intelligent, stylish and uncommonly well-crafted for their budgets. Streets combines both Corman's demands and Shea / Ruben's ambitions to transcend the material into an entertaining and affecting, albeit imperfect, film.

Christina Applegate stars as an illiterate, heroin-addicted teenage hooker named Dawn, who's living a sad, aimless, dangerous and drug-fueled life in Venice Beach. Late one night, she's picked up by a john on a motorcycle and taken under a pier, where the action starts getting rough. After her trick attempts to rape and murder her, Dawn's saved by teen Sy (David Mendenhall), a middle class suburban kid from Santa Barbara. Sy's not really a runaway. At least not yet. He simply used an opportunity (his parents going away on vacation) to sneak out of the house and ride off on his bike, with hopes of peddling all the way to Hollywood to start a band. In contrast to Sy's naive, sheltered upbringing, Dawn has lived her entire life on the streets. Her mother was also a hooker who abandoned her with “50 dollars for groceries and a pretty good idea how to fuck.” Over the course of the next few days, Sy gets to experience what Dawn's daily life is like and get a good taste of what living out on the mean streets really entails.

The man who attacked Dawn turns out to be a sadistic motorcycle cop named Lumley (Eb Lottimer); an unhinged officer already far past the breaking point who's able to use his position of power to rape, abuse and murder. His chosen victims are mostly those that nobody is going to miss or care that much about; namely street kids, runaways and hookers, and Lumley doesn't like the fact that Dawn escaped, scratched up his face in the process and could possibly ID him if need be. He sets out on an obsessive quest to find and eliminate her, using a special sawed-off gun which makes only a muffled sound when fired.

I've seen one common criticism of the film, which comes from people who don't think a serious homeless drama and a psycho killer thriller go well together. I'll offer a counterpoint to that. Not only do the two work in tandem quite nicely, but the presence of the psycho not only adds another layer of urgency to the hopeless plight of street kids but also lends power and believability to the bond that quickly develops between the two protagonists out of sheer desperation. After all, this movie isn't really about the killer, it's about Dawn and Sy. And honestly, if a similar film had been made by a more famous, established filmmaker, viewers would likely be responding more positively to the ambiguous psycho by talking about how brilliantly “symbolic” the cop is of this or that. As far as I'm concerned, there was really no reason for the cop character to be further established than what he is here. Knowing what caused him to snap or what makes him tick wouldn't really change anything. The director's intentions very well could have been to make the psycho officer representative of an establishment that really could care less about any of these forgotten kids. Actually, I strongly suspect that's the case considering the inclusion of a scene in a police locker room where cops nonchalantly discuss and joke around about one of the underage victims.

Though the action and horror scenes are tautly-directed, smoothly-edited and effective, where the film really shines is in its portrayal of day-to-day street life. Though Dawn lives in drain pipe and can't quite conquer her drug habit, she clings to what little dignity she can with a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor and by making money “whoring” (no intercourse sex) instead of hooking. Despite the fact she can't read and self-identifies as “stupid,” she's actually very clever in regards to how she manages to get by and coerce as much money as possible out of each of her customers. One of Dawn's drain-mates is a tiny young girl named Elf (Mel Castelo) who frequently has sex with a known pedophile for drug money and another guy named Bob (Patrick Richwood), who fancies himself a street philosopher, gets by hawking stuff and also isn't above crashing a murder scene to scrounge up whatever clothing and goods he can to sell. The name of the game in Streets is survival.

While there are certainly elements that date this (sometimes painfully so), much of the dialogue remains sharp and it's obvious that Shea and Ruben, just like with their other collaborations, actually care about the characters they have created and are presenting here to us. This film was also novel in the filmography of its star. Applegate, then-known for playing Kelly Bundy, the big-haired, spandex-clad, sexpot / bimbo daughter on the hit TV show Married with Children, gets to explore new territory here and does a terrific job in her role. While her sitcom character was blissfully hyper-aware of her sex appeal and used it to her advantage but was otherwise a complete moron, here she plays another highly-sexualized teen who also uses sex to get what she wants but has also been irreparably damaged by it. Her self-destructive, self-sabotaging character here is also far from dumb, even though she claims to be. Despite proving her versatility here, audiences never forgot "Kelly Bundy," few directors hired her for serious projects and she's been stuck mostly in sitcoms and lame comedies ever since.

Shot in just 19 days for a budget “far less than 1 million” (according to the director herself in a 1992 interview with Donald Porter), this was given a limited theatrical run in 1990, where it grossed a pretty respectable 1.5 million in around just 70 theaters. The VHS was from MGM/UA and, in 2010, it made its DVD debut through Shout! Factory, who paired it up with another Corman production involving prostitution called Angel in Red (1991). The theme song is from E.G. Daily. Paul Ben-Victor, Aron Eisenberg (TV's Deep Space Nine) and Alan Stock (Frightmare) are also in cast and Lenz and Starr Andreeff, the leads in two of Shea's previous films, both have small cameo roles.

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