‘Savage Harbor’ (1987): Video store-era schlock perfect weekend viewing

Stallone! Mitchum! An explosive, can’t-miss ’80s action event!

By Jason Hink

How on earth did the direct-to-video gods of 1980s sleazeball action flickery ever convince these luminaries to board the avocado-farm train-wreck of fun known as Savage Harbor? Ohhh, now I get it; it’s Frank Stallone…and Christopher Mitchum. Now it makes perfect sense. That’s right; Sylvester‘s little brother and Robert’s second son surely pulled in a few extra VHS rentals in 1987 by affixing their well known last names to the top of that sweet, always-misleading cover art.

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The good folks at Vinegar Syndrome have released yet again a vague, distant but fun memory from my youth, when I’d join my dad or uncle down at the local mom-and-pop rental shack scouring the action movie aisle, always wondering just how the hell did I miss this at the theater!? Little did I know at 11 years old, classics like these weren’t released to theaters. Ohhh no, baby, this was released directly for ME, straight to my hometown video store (which coincidentally, was called Hometown Video).

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Savage Harbor (aka Death Feud), starring Frank Stallone, Christopher Mitchum, Karen Mayo-Chandler, Greta Blackburn (hello!), Lisa Loring, Anthony Caruso and Nicholas Worth, tells the story of two merchant seamen, Joe and Chris, on leave at a Los Angeles port looking for love in all the perfect wrong places (the local strip bar). When Joe (Frank Stallone) spots a damsel in distress, he mans up and saves her (he can’t help it; Sly’s his older brother)…and falls in love with her. The damsel in question, Anne (Karen Mayo-Chandler, Out of the Dark) has just escaped from her evil, human sex-trafficking pimp, mobster-ish Harry (Anthony Caruso in his next-to-last role), who vows to track her down.

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Over a series of exceedingly cheesy montages of Joe and Anne “falling in love,” shot with gauzy, nighttime soap opera-like, soft filters (with Frank Stallone hilariously giving Karen Mayo-Chandler the tongue in each kissing scene, undercutting the intended “gentle romance” of the imagery and the giggle-worthy, abrupt “love scene” music cues), including romantic picnic shots at the park where they literally dry hump while fully clothed, Joe explains to Anne that he wants to get off the ship and settle down on an avocado farm he’s inheriting (what!? Now that’s romantic…), and he wants her to be a part of it…so, he asks her to marry him.

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After this superior act of gentlemanship, she can’t say no (plus he’s a Stallone)…but problem is, he has to go back to sea for one last tour on the big boat, leaving her all alone in her apartment for six months (bad move, Mini Sly).

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In the useless B-story, Joe’s buddy Chris (Christopher Mitchum, Tombstone) begins a romance with a stripper from the bar named Roxey (Lisa Loring–yes, little Wednesday Addams from the ’60s Addams Family TV show…*snaps fingers twice*). These two bad-act their way through a few filler scenes depicting their “struggle” to become a couple (Chris wants to stay at sea; Roxey wants him home where they can be together).

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Sorry, where was I….oh yes. Mobster-pimp Harry catches up to his escapee sex slave Anne and has his goons kidnap her, forcing her back into a life of prostitution while  controlling her by forcing her into a meth addiction (nice guys, they). When Joe returns after six months at sea, Anne mysteriously no longer lives in the apartment he thought she did, and the tenants, all of whom are on Harry’s payroll, pretend like she never existed, leading Joe to recruit buddy Chris to form a two-man vigilante squad to track down his lost love. The hot new tenant living in Anne’s old apartment is Jenny (Greta Blackburn, Party Line), who’s sympathetic to Joe’s search for Anne and sees an opportunity to free herself from Harry and her boyfriend, Slim (Gary Wood, lots of 80s and 90s TV, including Hart to Hart), who happens to be Harry’s right-hand-goon. Can badasses Joe and Chris track down Harry and save Anne?

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Written and directed by exploitation pro Carl Monson, Savage Harbor offers up the expected mid-80s exploitation action/adventure goods, and if you’re looking for that kind of fun, trashy cinema, you won’t go wrong here. The opening scene shootout sets the stage for what’s to come, and it’s a doozy; Harry, with gun in hand, watches a motorized raft filled with armed men and sex slaves arrive on the beach…but then gunfire erupts and pandemonium breaks loose. The sheer craziness of the shootout (which includes setting a man on fire who tried to hide in the now-beached raft, and blowing up said raft with him inside it!) underlies the simple reason for the scene: During the shootout, Anne, dressed in a foxy blue dress and high heels, exits Harry’s stretch limousine and manages to flee to the open road, hitching a ride with a passing motorist (a handsy, skeezy dude–the one Joe has to save her from, kicking off their initial meeting and romance).

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Other fun performances include Johnny Smith as the good-guy bartender who owns the strip club, Nicholas Worth as one of Harry’s tough-guy goons (does Worth play any other character??), and a hilarious turn by Patrick Wright as Harry’s henchman and driver who snickers and giggles through all of his scenes while doing untold things to those he’s sent to terrorize. It’s ridiculous, over the top, and you’ll love every minute of it if you like these films (while your wife/girlfriend will find it stupid and juvenile).

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In fact, I found myself giggling several times throughout the fast 90-minute runtime, laughing variously at the over-the-top antics of the heroes and villains, the faux-macho humor of the men, and the usually-ridiculous dialogue…all the things I want from such a film. Some of the more whack-a-doodle sequences include a crazy car chase where one of the bad guys gets dragged behind a fast-moving pick-up (no dummy here; kudos to that stuntman!) and a strange, meant-to-be deep-and-dramatic sequence involving Anne and memories of her father, all playing out in her dreams while high on smack. Wow!

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And in a perfect world, these obscure, cheap VHS gems would get full restorations and high definition releases. Thankfully, we live in a perfect world.

Vinegar Syndrome has rolled out Savage Harbor as the very first in a new line called the Vinegar Syndrome Archive (1985’s Evil Town, released the same day, is VSA’s official second release). I don’t know what differentiates these from their regular line of exploitation titles (Savage Harbor is just as good/bad as most of their releases), except for some packaging changes and availability restrictions (these will never be sold through online retailers, save for Vinegar Syndrome’s website). The release is packaged in a great-looking, hardboard slipcover that mimics old VHS slips by placing the opening at the bottom, where you pull out the proper Blu-ray case housing the disc. And speaking of the disc, Vinegar Syndrome’s regular releases are generally DVD/Blu-ray combos, but these VSA titles are Blu-ray only.

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The fancy slipcover looks great, with Savage Harbor on one side and its alternate title, Death Feud, on the opposite side (the same art is used for the case itself, with the two titles interchangeable via reversible sleeve art). Also included is a double-sided poster featuring the same artwork (I’m framing mine for my media room). The release is limited to 2,500 units and they’re hand-numbered (I snagged No. 370).

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VS has restored Savage Harbor in 2K from its 35mm camera original and includes a bonus featurette, Do You Like Avocados–an interview with star Frank Stallone (“It’s cheesy!” he says of the film over and over) who talks about how ridiculous the whole thing was while conceding that everyone has to break in by doing crappy films first (unless you’re lucky). Also included is an audio interview with cinematographer Jack Beckett, who sounds like he’s having fun telling stories over the phone about the shoot and how he staged some of those great, pre-CGI action sequences.

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Strangely, actress and leading lady Karen Mayo-Chandler is not listed anywhere on the back cover.

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It’s easy to dismiss films like these, especially if you didn’t grow up on them. They’re cheap and crude and contain elements critics today think have brought upon us society’s downfall. But if you were a poor bloke like myself, or just want to waste some time in front of the widescreen experiencing what a “fun” Friday night at home in ’87 might’ve felt like after a trip to Hometown Video, Frank Stallone and Savage Harbor is perfect.

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