Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Street Trash (1987)

Director: J. Michael Muro
Screenplay: Roy Frumkes
Cast: Mike Lackey (as Fred); Bill Chepil (as Bill The Cop); Vic Noto (as Bronson); Mark Sferrazza (as Kevin); Jane Arakawa (as Wendy)

Synopsis: The streets of New York. Cheap, spoiled hooch sold in a liquor store causes anyone who drinks it to melt into multi-coloured goo, and at a local car junkyard a sociopath named Bronson (Noto), a former Vietnam war veteran, rules with violence causing a local cop Bill (Chepil) to be snapping at his heels. Amongst such atrocities as a severed penis being used as a catch ball, spontaneous human meltdowns and a gangster Nick Duran (Tony Darrow) wanting revenge for his girlfriend being found dead at the junkyard, two brothers Fred (Lackey) and Kevin (Sferrazza) attempt to survive in vagary in their house made of tires.

Street Trash is a film which requires caution for anyone not used to this type of exploitation cinema that deliberately strives for bad taste. While the retrospective documentary The Meltdown Memoirs (2006) does ease its more controversial content knowing a great deal of the cast looked back on the film with fondness, that should not deceive potential viewers that the experience is exactly like drinking a bottle of the tainted hooch in terms of how raw it can be. In terms of American cult cinema, I am finding myself drawn towards a unique period that, while there were similarierly grimy films to be found in the sixties and so forth, really starts in terms of the specific mood I'm interested in from the late seventies to the end of the eighties, or at least to Frank Henenlotter's Frankenhooker (1990). Particularly with New York set films, before the mayoral election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor lead to what many documentaries on grindhouse cinema called the "clean up" of the city, this type of cinema which were blurry in what genre they all existed in had a potency to them, feeling like taking a stroll on the real streets with the pimps and small hoods, and occassionally even a swan dive into the gutter of humanity whilst they were there. Technically films existed before including highly regarded works like Taxi Driver (1976), but in terms of genre cinema which was thriving at this time, something like Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer (1979) is the start of it for me. Ferrara himself and the aforementioned Henenlotter were putting out a lot of films in this style, amongst other directors, but you also have one-offs plotted through the eighties like Buddy Giovinazzo's Combat Shock (1984) and Street Trash itself, films which even in lurid plotting and exaggerated realities still filmed on real run-down streets and dealt with subjects like traumatised Vietnam War vets and the sex industry, even if glibly, that serious dramatic cinema were.

Street Trash is superficial with its subject of homelessness, something that has to be pointed out after that paragraph to avoid confusion, connecting more to the splatstick subgenre of splatter and humour that came about in the mid eighties with a really sick humour. You cannot argue like with a film like Combat Shock that this has more on its mind. But with all these films I've mentioned, even the fact that they bring in this type of content and grime laced atmosphere still gives them a credibility, enveloping the viewer in the environments and dirt of the locations here as it wallows in its own filth. Unusually, Street Trash is largely set in the broad daylight, but that doesn't stop the (clearly real) dilapidated locations and wasteland from feeling like verité realism even with its deliberately schlocky subject matter taking place in the locations. This is definitely the case with how Street Trash is freewheeling in terms of plot as well, more of a variety of characters - the rundown, the physically disabled or drink stuporous, the ones with frayed sanities  - and strange atrocities rather than a clear narrative drive, very much the thing that will also put off people alongside the content itself. Unlike other films which are deliberately arch and gleefully mucking around in tastelessness however, there's a greater sense of personality here even in its exceptional crass even in end credit names. It's a film where the cast feels like they've walked off the streets which many actually did, from Bill the cop being played by Bill Chepil, an actual former cop, to former nightclub performer Tony Darrow as a gangster who with James Lorinz, playing a doorman and also the lead in Frankenhooker, steal the film whenever they're onscreen with largely improvised dialogue. Unlike some of the mainsteam genre films from this time, this film even with an absurd premise feels far more realistic in tone through its casting, the low budget and on-location choices.

Street Trash has a lot that could easily offend still. The melt sequences while gross are actually gleeful spectacles of practical effects and rainbow slime; no matter how gross they are, they're far more humorous in an incredibly twisted way especially with the ingenuity with depicting them onscreen.. It's the other infamous moments which are likely to be problematic and difficult to defend, such as a woman (Miriam Zucker) being brought to the junkyard drunk for a casual sex romp, only to be (off-camera) gang raped and killed, her body involved in a gruesome joke afterwards. This sort of scene is understandably problematic, even if it's meant to deliberately transgress. A great deal of this issue is that a film like this is stuck swimming against the tide with what else was taking place in this era, works with not helped by being part of the tide of works from this era with far less qualities and little to defend unlike Street Trash which had worse attitudes about women and did similar scenes; Street Trash even if defendable stuck in the current alongside the literal trash by covering the same ground. Whether you could defend the scene or not, a film like Street Trash that desires to offend everyone on purpose suffers from the social context of when it was made when people made comments seriously that were reprehensibly misogynistic without, making the act of defending a film like it even more difficult. It does soften the blow and put an entirely new perspective on the entirety of Street Trash having seen The Meltdown Memoirs though, both in how actress Zucker has a prominent role in the doc as a talking head, with no shame about the small role, and in small details of how, when she had to lay naked on the side of a "toxic" river in the gruesome after scene, women in the film crew were stood on a hill off-camera to make sure she was okay during the filming. It complicates what these troublesome scenes mean, both in their desire to attack the viewer through transgression, and how in this case the production filming the scenes with actors role-playing and the scenes in context on-screen contrast drastically from each other, complicating the morality involved. This as much applies to other potential problematic issues such as how the homeless are depicted and the various forms of mutilation and chaos that are likely to offend people throughout the movie.

Technical Details:
One of the most pronounced aspects of Street Trash as an exploitation film is its technical quality. Notably, director Jim Munro invested in a Steadicam before the film started to be pre-produced and honed his own skill in handling one when such technology was new for cinema, he himself using the camera and leading to some incredible moments involving gliding camera moments you never expect in this type of cinema. Munro, after only directing this film, went on to become one of the most prolific cinematographers and Steadicam operators in mainstream cinema, from the films of James Cameron to Kevin Costner's Open Range (2003) as a result of the practice he shows here. Generally, for a low budget production, pains were clearly made to bring a high technical quality to the whole film. From storyboarding scenes to the elaborate and incredibly gross melt sequences, Street Trash is a whole calibre higher in quality than a lot of this type of genre cinema; compare it to something from around the same time like Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986) - flat cinematography, constant blaring of cheap glam metal, lack sure presentation - the carefully crafted nature of this film, even if it's just as grimy, is incredibly noticeable.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
The one debate with rating this is whether "weird" has to qualify as a mood that disorientates the viewer or if seeing a hobo melt into a toilet is enough to qualify for the list. The issue with the latter is that this has to be a consistent, constant experience, were sights never expected to be seen on-screen are seen, to be "abstract". For a person who has never seen a film like Street Trash before, it would be an incredibly weird experience in parts not to mention shocking. But the series of events that take are is more shocking that bizarre to experience, merely the poisoned hooch leading to anything remotely strange consistently particularly with how the melting is depicting in bright primary colours specific to each victim's scene, by themselves memorable just for their bright coloured gristliness. The rest is far more a gritty and sickly hilarious series of memorable characters and events, such following the likes of Burt (Clarenze Jarmon), a friend of the main brothers who tries sneaking chicken and food from a grocery store in his trousers in a memorable scene, to Bronson the main villain, who keeps a knife made from a human thigh bone and has the only other moment that could be close to "abstract", a nightmare about Vietnam where he's attached by vampire Vietcong and has erotic desires for a captive he finds, the film managing to make a location in the East Coast of the US look like an appropriately nightmarish location for a battleground.

Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Psychotronic
Abstract Tropes: Body Horror; Transgression; Melting Body Parts; Genital Mutilation; Bad Taste; Wallowing in Filth

Personal Opinion:
Unless you're prepared to see Street Trash or have been warned what to expect, I advise caution with viewing the film even for splatter fans. The film was intended to be like scrapping the bottom of the barrel and whilst there are moments that are cheesy, there's still a lot of this which feels like inserting one's head into an un-flushed toilet in a public bathroom even in the present day. It was a film I didn't like at all when I first saw it, but Street Trash has gained a grimy quality both for the charisma behind this seediness and the exceptional technical craft that put it all together. The likes of Street Trash could never be made again and a great deal of this is to do with the character of these films in appearance and tone; rundown, economically effected environments could be found to film at, but it would have a different tone to it from the cultural and social changes that have taken place since the eighties, let alone the influence of technology, leaving a film like this one as something utterly distinct even if it has a bitter taste to it.

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