Hard as it is to believe now, there was actually a time —say, for its first season or two — when Married — With Children was considered cutting-edge, maybe even semi-dangerous stuff. Critics said it “pushed the envelope,” that it was “irreverent,” that it “took risks,” etc. Frankly, even though I was only about 15 or 16 when the show first came out, I knew all that talk was bullshit and that it was formulaic, idiotic, lowest-common-denominator garbage that had one clever gimmick in its favor — it pretended to be “self-aware,” therefore it was okay for the show’s writers to openly admit how stupid it was. The self-appointed guardians of public taste figured out this shtick pretty quickly, and even though it sputtered along for something like another fucking decade, it ceased to be considered “daring,” “provocative” stuff relatively early its run.
But hey, ya know what? Even though I was never impressed with the show’s self-consciously lowbrow “humor,” I still watched it back in the day anyway, and you can probably guess why. Yup, I was a horny young kid and Christina Applegate was on it — more often than not wearing something pretty form-fitting. That was enough for me, and for quite a few other randy young fellas of approximately my own age (and plenty of older guys as well), to tune in every week. What we didn’t know, however (and truth be told didn’t care about) was the fact that the fetching young Ms. Applegate was also a pretty damn fine actress.
Honestly, yer honor, I ain’t lyin’. For proof, look no further than her first cinematic starring vehicle, 1990’s Roger Corman production Streets. If you haven’t seen the film, forget what you’re probably thinking — yes, it’s low-budget, and yes, it still has some solid, old-fashioned exploitation elements going for it (primary among them being its inclusion of a psychotic police officer — they were pretty big at the time in the wake of Maniac Cop), but this is another rare example (the other being Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia) of Corman realizing that he could hire a young female director (in this case Katt Shea Ruben, who would go on to helm the first Poison Ivy film, among other accomplishments) to tell a gritty, even realistic tale about a disenfranchised segment of the youth population and he wouldn’t need to spend any more money on it than he would on, say, yet another Alien knock-off. The results are surpsingly impressive indeed.
Streets tells the story of Dawn (Applegate), a 16-year-old homeless, illiterate, heroin-addicted (well, she says she’s not hooked, but she shoots the shit into her hand, which is something I’ve always been told only the hardest of hard-core junkies do) prostitute who plies her trade in and around the Venice Beach, California area (for a movie called Streets it’s worth pointing out that most of this flick takes place on the beach, but hey, I guess the title Beaches was already taken) and crashes in a storm drain-type thing she shares with other runaways, addicts, and general teenage societal cast-offs at night. One evening she makes the mistake of crossing paths with a bully in blue named Lumley (Eb Lottimer), who has his own unique method of cleaning the streets of those who would dare try their hand (well, okay, maybe it’s not their hand they’re working — although in Dawn’s case it is, more on that in a moment) at the world’s oldest profession — he rapes them and then kills them with a homemade, high-power, double-barrel gun with a really thick fucking silencer. Hey, give him points for inventiveness in his method of dispatch, at least, even if the idea of a cop killing “ladies of the evening” in his spare time isn’t exactly all that original.
In any case, Dawn manages to escape from Lumley’s clutches with the help of a passer-by of roughly her own age named Sy (David Mendenhall), who befriends our young heroine and takes it upon himself to keep a watchful eye on her since that crazy cop who tried to kill her got away and might be back. Over the course of the day, they get to know each other, she shows him the ins and outs of her life, and hey, maybe they even kinda-sorta fall in love a little bit. He learns her mother was a hooker, as well, who one day just up and left her own kid, that she’s never gone to school and consequently can’t read, that she’s “successfully” kicked her heroin habit about a half-dozen times, that she only gives blow-jobs and hand-jobs to her customers but doesn’t have intercourse with them —
Whoa. Hold on. Wait just a minute right there. We now interrupt this review for a good-old-fashioned rant from your host. What, pray tell, does it say about our society’s attitudes toward sex that we can have in this movie a protagonist who has no home or family, no education, is hooked on drugs, and who works as an underage hooker (and props to Ruben and Applegate for choosing to make Dawn a strong, multi-faceted character and not some one-dimensional waif for whom we’re supposed to have nothing but either pity or contempt — they really do pull out all the stops in terms of portraying her as an actual, real, living, breathing, thinking person) — but the suggestion that she might actually be, you know, fucking is somehow considered a bridge too far? You wanna shoot smack into your hand? Fine. Can’t read? That’s cool with us. Jerk guys off and/or suck their cocks for a living? Hey, it’s your life, kiddo — but for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, keep your virginity intact or, ya know, you’ll be a real whore, and evidently that’s the point at which our sympathy as an audience (hell, maybe even as a society) runs out. Okay, rant over. We now resume our regularly-scheduled review.As the film progresses, we learn that Lumley is, indeed, on the hunt for our lovely young damsel in distress, since he’s been offing hookers in the area left and right and it just wouldn’t do to have her around to ID him given that being a serial killer in your off-hours is, I’m told, a pretty good way to get yourself kicked off the police force (unless you’re that Dexter guy). As he goes about his chase, Lumley engages in a couple instances of genuinely shocking violence (he kills one of Dawn’s friends by ramming the double-barrel of his homemade “piece” up the guy’s ass and firing away, for instance), and Lottimer’s performance really does a damn fine job of communicating that this is a guy with literally oceans of barely-contained rage seething under his forced-calm exterior, but even though director Ruben does terrifically when it comes to ratcheting up the tension throughout, and the “cat-and-mouse” struggle between pursuer and pursued is in no way given short shrift, it’s quite clear that her real passion lies in documenting the hard-scrabble lifestyle of these “throwaway” kids and that the ultimate goal of her film is to honestly and accurately convey the struggles of their daily existences (heck, she even shows them eating roadkill and does so without a hint of condescension or freak-show finger-pointing). It’s just that today those struggles happen to include eluding an unhinged officer of the law with a giant zip-gun and one hell of a mean streak.
My earlier quibble about its unrealistic-at-best, offensive-at-worst sexual puritanism aside, Streets, which is now available for you all to see on DVD from Shout! Factory as part of its “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series (it’s double-billed with Angel In Red, and while there are no extras to speak of apart from the theatrical trailer, the widescreen remastered picture and stereo sound are damn-near pristine — just be forewarned that a lot of this flick takes place around sunset hours and it’s filmed on location so much of it has an orange-ish hue to it) is, in my own humble opinion, a mostly-unheralded classic. It uses its genre and exploitation trappings to tell a very human-scale story about a compelling protagonist and the world she inhabits, features superb acting, especially from Applegate, and even tugs at the heart-strings a bit without ever being Lifetime-movie-of-the-week- syrupy about it. This is a film that both respects its characters and its audience and gives us a sometimes-harrowing, always- realistic look inside a world that, fortunately, most of us have never had to experience first-hand.
Oh, and since you were wondering anyway — no, Christina Applegate doesn’t get naked in it. But she comes pretty darn close.