A Scream in the Streets (1973)
Studio: Severin Films
Release date: March 30th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Exploitation movies have often been vehicles of subversion, with filmmakers smuggling in idiosyncratic concerns or exposing socio-political unrest. But other times, though, exploitation movies have been much more base in their aim to be shameless vehicles for an audience’s primal instincts to watch people shoot, stab, and fuck. Grindhouse maven Harry H. Novak specialized in the latter, churning out dozens of provocative shockers through his Boxoffice International Pictures outfit over the course of two decades. Releasing everything from 60s nudie cuties to 70s proto-slashers (and a little bit of everything in between), Novak was one of the many hucksters capable of making a quick buck off of an audience’s plain old fashioned lust and their bloodlust. Or, as was the case of a movie like A Scream in the Streets, both at the same time. Why limit yourselves to sex and violence when you can stuff plenty of each into a 90-minute grindhouse showreel?
The official loglines for A Scream in the Streets—like the ones you’ll find on IMDb or Severin’s new Blu-ray release—would have you believe it’s the tale of two L.A.P.D detectives hunting down a rapist and a murderer who keeps evading capture because he’s a cross-dresser. And while this is technically true, it doesn’t exactly capture the whole picture since this maniac is just one of the many sickos plaguing the greater Los Angeles area. When they’re not on the beat looking for him, they’re dealing with a massage parlor pervert, a peeping tom, and criminal gangs. But even these episodes are just the pretense for the real story here: lots and lots of graphic sex.
Let me be clear: A Scream in the Streets is actual pornography. I learned this in the best possible way: by total surprise when the massage parlor scene graduated from wooden dialogue to full-frontal nudity to full-on penetration. To make matters more interesting, I decided to watch the film on my back porch since the weather is finally nice enough again to fire up my outdoor setup. Readers, I have rarely been happier to live in the middle of nowhere and in the complete absence of judgmental neighbors who probably would have something to say about vintage smut being projected on a 100-inch screen. I knew A Scream in the Streets would likely have the right drive-in movie aesthetic (which is why I watched it outdoors in the first place), but I didn’t know it would go so hard. I just thought you might need a fair warning: don’t watch this in the company of people who might be aghast at the sight of erect penises and fully visible vaginas. Could get pretty awkward.
If this isn’t your kind of thing (and not judgment if it is or isn’t!), you might be wondering if A Scream in the Streets has much else to offer. I suppose it does in the anthropological sense because it’s definitely a relic from an era that is never likely to return. Put simply: it is problematic as hell, filled with racist stereotypes and questionable police violence. The whole thing plays as an apologia for the facist lengths cops often resort to in their dogged pursuit of justice. A Scream in the Streets is essentially about a couple of guys who have been through some shit, and policing is an outlet for their rage and frustration. Was this necessarily on the mind of anyone involved with the production? Probably not, but you can’t ignore this subtext now. Hell, I’m sure it was noticed back then, too: after all, one of the goals of exploitation filmmaking is to attract an audience by any means necessary, even if it means provoking them. A Scream in the Streets definitely does that, and it feels even more provocative now, but not necessarily in a productive way—unless you count its ability to bring these considerations to the forefront and muse upon the way we’re supposed to reckon with archaic art like this.
It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, this tightrope we straddle with vintage exploitation. Having spent most of my life watching disreputable junk like this but also growing more aware of exactly why it was so disreputable in the first place, I often find myself caught between awe and mortification. You can’t help but marvel at some of the more inspired bits, and even a middling affair like A Scream in the Streets manages a few outrageous outbursts with a nicely-staged shootout complete erupting squibs and wild stunt-work. Likewise, when a car chase unfolds, it’s amazing to watch these absolute lunatics stage a demolition derby up in the Hollywood Hills, smashing together cars and putting stunt performers in peril to film filler material for a porno. Even the porn itself features arguably the film’s most outrageous scene: as a couple of bored housewives entertain each other, they notice a peeping tom in the window, so they position themselves in such a way that one of them can covertly call 911. Let’s just say that Star 69 would have been more appropriate.
But what does it mean that all of this is in the service of a movie that’s offensive at best and reprehensible at worst? Should we just sweep its troubling aspects under a rug and enjoy its unhinged pleasures? Is it fair to judge a nearly 50-year old movie by today’s standards of taste and decency? The answer probably rests somewhere in between these extremes: certainly, something like this shouldn’t be completely condemned, if only because it endures as a time capsule, a reminder of just why they don’t (or shouldn’t) make ‘em like this anymore. Exploitation movies have always been a “warts and all” experience, and that’s only compounded over time: the further we get away from movies like A Scream in the Streets, the more pronounced those warts are. I don’t really have solid answers for any of this, and I suppose it’s all personal, anyway. Everybody’s got their own limits. Besides, maybe this is getting a little too philosophical for a porno where characters trade the type of stilted barbs that Boomers share on Facebook memes. Did I mention that A Scream in the Streets is also probably the only movie to feature a porno scene set to a harpsichord rendition of “What Child is This?” I know, I’m just as appalled as you: I mean, “Come All Ye Faithful” was right there.
Nearly two decades after Something Weird released A Scream in the Streets on DVD, Severin has upgraded it to pristine Blu-ray. Presented in both 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 presentations, the transfer is nicely done—the colors pop, and the detail is excellent, and there’s just enough minor print damage to keep things appropriately grungy. The 2.0 mono soundtrack is likewise sturdy: dialogue is crisp, and the film’s wah-wah score resounds with clarity.
Supplements are a little light, though. There’s a collection of trailers, plus two “sexy shorts” produced from the film’s outtakes, which probably should have been my first clue that maybe this wasn’t appropriate outdoor material. The old Something Weird disc had a lot of extras that didn’t make the leap here, so you’ll want to hang onto it to get the full A Scream in the Streets experience. Because I don't know about you, but I’m the type of guy who only owns porn to watch the supplements. Otherwise, this is a solid release just from a preservation viewpoint: it's not likely to be everybody's cup of tea, but hats off to Severin for catering to this particular niche.
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