Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Exterminator

James Glickenhaus' 1980 film, The Exterminator, a bastard son of Taxi Driver and Death Wish, has over the years carved out quite a following among fans of gritty urban exploitation, with a solid mix of action, gore, sleaze and some righteous kills. In the film, John Eastland, a Vietnam vet wages war on the criminal scum of New York after his friend is attacked by a street gang and left paralysed and confined to a life support machine. With the city under siege, Eastland assumes full combat mode, dubs himself the Exterminator and takes to the streets to administer some rough justice. Determined to catch him is detective James Dalton, as well as some CIA agents who have a more permanent solution in mind...


It must have been quite an experience to catch a late show of The Exterminator and William Lustig's Maniac at a Manhattan theatre back in 1980 and then navigate your way home through the urban malaise. New York No Wave singer Lydia Lunch sang the garbage screams at my feet about her hometown in 1978, and Glickenhaus, a New Yorker himself, must have felt likewise when he wrote the screenplay - it's difficult not to see the film as a scream of rage against a city of hustlers, thieves, perverts, rapists and murderers, all going about their business in plain view of ineffectual law enforcement and indifferent politicians

Subtext aside, The Exterminator is a rip-roaringly good exploitation film. Glickenhaus directs with vigour and the film looks good for its meagre means. There's a car chase that ends with a wallop, and the 'Nam-on-a-budget prologue set in a Viet Cong POW camp is impressively staged. In the wake of The Deer Hunter, this sequence is suitably gruelling, with a spectacular decapitation effect courtesy of Stan Winston. The film doesn't soft pedal on the sleaze either, with a scene involving a prostitute who's tortured with a soldering iron for the amusement of a senator with a taste for young boys - quite an uncharteristic bit of grisly violence for this era, amongst the more palatable techno-splatter of Dawn of the Dead and the emerging slasher genre.

Robert Ginty as John Eastland aka The Exterminator

Robert Ginty's performance as the exterminating angel creaks like an old wooden floorboard at times, but he's good enough as a low-rent Christopher Walken. Sterling support too from Christopher George, fresh from City of the Living Dead, playing the world-weary cop on the trail of the Exterminator. Rounding out the lead players is Samantha Eggar, who was so good in The Brood the previous year, but here is simply wasted with nothing more to do than throw lines at George.

Christopher George samples some beside reading of the Exterminator
The Exterminator is a tight, confident film, and Glickenhaus scores big on scuzzy ambiance, but the film feels underwritten, especially Eastland's character which lacks the psychological complexities of Paul Schrader's sociopathic taxi driver. The film has some awkward moments too - a scene where the Exterminator lies in wait of a mafia boss by hiding out in a large wastebasket bin in a mensroom is frankly ridiculous, and there are some variable performances from the minor cast members. The cynical subplot involving the CIA seems rather superfluous to the proceedings but thankfully winds the film down on a neat conclusion.


The Exterminator was first released on DVD in the US way back in 1998 by Anchor Bay, uncut, with a decent 1:85 transfer. The print used looked a little ragged in places but it was revelation compared to my old Intervision VHS copy. A few years later, the film changed hands, and is currently available on the Tango label, a port of the Anchor Bay disc but dressed up like a cheap budget quickie. The film fared worse in the UK where it was issued by Synergy, in a version cut by 22 seconds. It's a surprise that such a minor classic has not been given the love and respect it deserves on DVD but perhaps we're close to a definitive release - last year, Synapse boss Don May Jr. told Fangoria that his label would put out The Exterminator on Blu-Ray sometime in 2011. If you're lying Don...

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Notes
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Travis Bickle may have got his kicks from watching cheap porn loops, but the Exterminator is far more cultured - in one scene you can spot a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's 1962 play The Condemned of Altona, a work that Sartre intended as a critique of the French war in Algeria, and in turn perhaps a sly comment by the director about US invovlement in Vietnam.

My good friend Jeremy over at the excellent Silverferox blog has posted some great pics of the Japanese Exterminator program. Well worth checking out, and while you're there, make sure you sample Jeremy's amazing film poster designs for some of his favourite Exploitation and Horror films, as well as some promo designs for new independant films...

Japanese program for The Exterminator

10 comments:

  1. Really love this film! Nice write up and tip there at the end - I used to rent this countless times back in the 80s. I'll post the Jap program for you tomorrow - it's particularly large for such a small flick, but then again, I remember at the time it was very popular and yes, that decapitation is marvelous (he does a quick spine breaking blow followed by that slow carve through...yeesh). George cooking his sausage on those heated forks is a classic!

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  2. Thanks Jeremy...looking forward to seeing that program... Yeah, that hot dog scene is great, Michael Mann should have stuck that scene in Heat...

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  3. Haven't seen this for years Wes, I remember that Intervision tape being rented more than a few times, it was a real favourite. Great review, that wastebasket bit hilarious!

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  4. Thanks Mart. Yeah, I hadn't seen the film for a long time, my Intervision copy had gotton seriously mouldy in the last few years. I didn't mention the sequel in the review - there's not much to say about it really, it's a mediocre film at best, but it does have one of the best posters of the 80's with the Exterminator in full flame thrower mode...

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  5. Yeah, the film wasn't anywhere near as good, but the poster was amazing!

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  6. I remember the old Intervision tape very well -it was much rented in my house. (Was it an 'alpha' presentation?) Funnily enough I saw The Exterminator again recently. I thought Robert Ginty was wooden and like you say Wes, his role underwritten. I couldn't stop thinking he looked like Paul McCartney which sort of ruined it for me.

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  7. Yeah, it was an Alpha-Intervision thing Jon. I loved all those Intervision tapes - the Intervision name always sounded vaguely science-fiction-y to me, they had a great logo and they usually had great sleeves - (see Virus post). I think my favourite Intervision sleeve was for Poor White Trash - I used to stand transfixed in the videostore at that sleeve - no one would be able to put out a sleeve like that nowadays. What we have lost !

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  8. Indeed. All the must-sees were on the Intervision label, and they had great trailers too.

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  9. That Blu-Ray did indeed appear - and it's pretty amazing to see this wallow in sleaze in high definition. Great views of the city abound, and I agree with you across the board about the rest. Ginty was never one of my ultra faves, but he is fine here. George is great, Eggar is very wasted. So, am I going to run across a post featuring the much less beloved sequel here eventually?

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  10. Craig, I'd love to see Exterminator 2 again - it's been 25 years or so since I saw it as a teenager on VHS (and what a cover it came in!), but the film is hard to see nowadays, through official channels at least. I actually saw the sequel first if I remember rightly. What I clearly remember is seeing the first film with my parents hanging around, and my Dad sending me out of the room when the sleaze got a little too heavy. It's still a strong picture I think...

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