Exterminator, The

Discussion in 'High Def' started by Chunkblower, Sep 25, 2011.

  1. Chunkblower

    Chunkblower Member

    Apr 17, 2005
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    Calgary, AB

    Reviewer: Chunkblower
    Review Date: September 25, 2011

    Format: Blu-ray
    Released by: Synapse
    Release date: September 13, 2011
    MSRP: $29.95
    Region: All (Both Discs)
    Progressive Scan
    Codec: AVC, 1080p
    Widescreen 1.78 | 16x9: Yes

    inline ImageThe turbulent 1960s bled into the 1970s and by the end of the decade urban decay had set in and a sense of hopelessness pervaded the general consciousness. This was reflected in the hard-edged urban crime films of the 70s, especially Death Wish and its clones. Dirty Harry, French Connection…a definite pall hung over a genre now more closely associated with escapist entertainment. When the urban renewal efforts of the 80s and 90s led to a lifting of this pall and the softening of the genre’s grime we got films like the Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon series: films that had moments of intense violence, but that also had equal parts comic relief to let the audience know that everything was purely in fun.

    The late 70s and early 80s produced some of the grimmest and grittiest films ever released under the guise of entertainment but even by the standards of the films emblematic of this time (such as Death Wish), The Exterminator is an exceptionally nasty and aggressively unpleasant film. Roger Ebert famously gave it zero stars out of four, calling it a “small, unclean exercise in shame.” While the critical reception to the film may have been overwhelmingly negative the film opened to blockbuster business, debuting in the #1 spot nationally despite only playing in New York City. It may not have the same notoriety it did back in 1980 but The Exterminator still has the power to provoke, even more than thirty years later.

    The Story

    inline ImageJohn Eastland (Robert Ginty) and Michael Jefferson (Steve James) are American soldiers fighting side by side in the jungles of Vietnam when they are captured and interrogated by a particularly brutal Vietnamese officer (George Lee Cheung) who has a preference for beheading captives. Michael cracks under the pressure and gives up vital American intel. Luckily Michael has more fortitude and fights back, freeing John and killing their captors. The two escape and are airlifted to safety as the hills explode around them, all thanks to Michael’s quick thinking.

    inline ImageReturning to the States, the two men get jobs working the loading docks at a grocery store distribution warehouse. A gang of thugs called the Ghetto Ghouls casually, arrogantly saunter into the room where the beer is stored and begin stealing. John discovers them but their leader gets the drop on him. Luckily Michael is there to once again bail his ass out. Unluckily for Michael, however, the Ghouls track him down later that night and attack him, leaving him paralyzed. This spurs John in to action; he tracks the Ghouls to their clubhouse and kills them. He soon realizes that the Ghouls are only a symptom of the real problem: the systemic corruption the mafia’s influence has had in the grocery business. He starts to work his way up the criminal food chain.

    inline ImageSomeone whose handiwork is as visible as John’s can’t go unnoticed for long: he’s quickly dubbed “The Exterminator” by the press for his brutal efficiency at dispatching criminals. As the media attention increases, the pressure mounts on Detective James Dalton (Christopher George) to crack the case and get the violent psychopath off the streets. Dalton’s task is complicated when he finds himself balancing his police work with a burgeoning romance with Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar), the physician treating one of The Exterminator’s victims.

    Of course, all this will lead to the requisite fiery showdown between the two men with many shells being spent and much blood being spilled…and if an opening is left for a sequel, well, so much the better.

    inline ImageDespite its reputation for the harshness of its content my biggest problem with The Exterminator wasn’t with the onscreen violence, but with the assembly of the film itself. That’s not to say that The Exterminator’s reputation isn’t well earned - it is. The violence is every bit as sleazy and repellent as it’s purposed to be. Along with the expected shootings and beatings there’s also forced sodomy and the disfiguring of a prostitute by a cretin using a soldering iron. Oh, and lots of immolations. The Exterminator seems particularly fond of lighting people on fire so he can listen to their screams as they slowly die. While not exactly a fun time at the movies, these scenes didn’t bother me that much. Confrontational violence, I can deal with. Lazy and inept filmmaking, however, is another kettle of fish.

    Take the opening Vietnam flashback, for starters. It’s slick and impressively mounted with a helicopter, stunts, explosions and a genuinely gruesome and disturbing partial decapitation (courtesy of Stan Winston). The problem that soon becomes apparent is that these scenes accomplish nothing other than giving the audience action spectacle. They don’t establish the characters and their relationships very well. We’re eleven minutes into movie before we even know the names of the two leads.

    inline ImageOkay, so the film is slow to start. Fair enough. Not the best way to kick off but not a deal breaker, either. Still, narrative problems persist long after the pre-credit sequence is concluded. The whole inciting incident, the Ghetto Ghoul’s attack on Michael, is handled in such a slapdash way it’s almost mind-boggling. After foiling their theft at work, the Ghouls track him down. How did they know where to find him? After they attack him, we see John telling Michael’s wife about the attack. How did he know to find her at the playground and how did he find out about the attack before she did? How soon after the attack does this scene take place? It occurs in the chronology immediately after, but there’s an insert shot that shows Michael recovering in the hospital after surgery. There’s no sense of a workable timeline and, as a result, no sense of forward momentum - it’s just jarring and disorienting. Scenes follow one another with no connectivity linking them. You could edit the scenes in The Exterminator in almost any order and get pretty much the same film. It’s not cut like a narrative, it’s cut like a highlight reel.
    inline ImageI didn’t hate The Exterminator but I did resent the laziness of its storytelling. It’s an especially egregious offense because the revenge genre has such a well-established template that you almost have to make a concerted effort to screw it up. In the commentary, director James Glickenhaus said that he didn’t want to waste time on transitional scenes that the audience didn’t need. That’s a legit strategy but there’s a world of difference between that and what he actually does: make the audience do all the narrative heavy lifting. I guess we’re just not expected to give the film this much thought and I’m willing to do that… up to a point. There are only so many unexplained scenes or plot holes you can pile on in such a short amount of time before it becomes too distracting. Narrative efficiency is one thing, omitting half the narrative is another thing altogether.

    The Exterminator[/b] himself is not a very interesting character. His friend Michael seems like a much more assertive man of action and after he’s out of the picture, the focus turns to Detective Dalton and his romance with Megan. John is poorly conceived, always just hanging out in the fringes of the story. We never really find out what drives him beyond avenging his friend. Take the scenes with the scarred hooker: why does he pick her up to begin with and why does he go after the men who disfigured her? It would be one thing if he was established as a person with a strong, almost compulsive sense of right and wrong but, from minute one, he’s been portrayed as a bit of a jelly-spined milquetoast. He is the titular character but aside from his name I know about as much about The Exterminator at the end of the film as I did in the beginning. They may as well have made him mute and put him in a clown mask for all the personality and depth of motivation he exhibits.

    inline ImageFurther complicating things is the actual movie making craft involved in The Exterminator. Ignoring the borderline inept writing and assembly of the film, the individual scenes are well crafted enough from a technical standpoint. There’s an exterior shot of the Ghoul’s clubhouse, all painted in dayglo colors and lit by the strobe of the light from a police car that has an eerie beauty that’s positively haunting, and a scene inside an underground sex parlor has a similar, almost Kubrickian look to it. It’s an unusual choice in a genre that generally trades in nicotine-stained grittiness. Aerial establishing shots of burned out buildings in pre-renewal New York cast an appropriate aura of hopelessness and despair. The stunts are well executed and the gore effective, especially an audaciously over-the-top meat grinder gag, but the final product is far less than the sum of its parts.

    Image Quality

    inline ImageThe Exterminator is presented in a 1.78 AVC transfer that looks to have been struck from well preserved materials- there’s barely a blemish or any significant print damage to be found. Grain is well preserved and present throughout. The image does often tend toward softness and occasionally looks very washed out. Like a lot of the films of the era, most of The Exterminator was filmed in blurry soft focus photography. The movie has a fairly muted palette but when bright colors appear they pop off the screen without bleeding. Fine detail is good but not great: writing on trucks or signs is tough to discern, even in the middle ground of the frame. A lot of these issues are probably inherent in the source material and not a fault of the transfer: every now and then there’s a scene that looks utterly fantastic, with bright, well saturated colors and sharp detail. Synapse’s Blu-ray release represents a huge step up from the previous, non-anamorphic Anchor Bay disc and is likely as good as The Exterminator will ever look.


    The DTS-HD 2.0 mono is quite good, as well. Although there are a few scenes where dialogue is hollow sounding or tough to hear, for the most part it’s a well presented and well balanced track. Sound effects are present but never overpowering. The score is pounding when needed and quiet when appropriate. It’s not going to knock your socks off but it’s far preferable to an artificial 5.1 mix where the surrounds are filled with canned effects. Kudos to Synapse for preserving the original audio.

    Supplemental Material

    Although the supplements may seem a bit slim at first glance, a sense of perspective needs to be maintained. The Blu-ray edition of The Exterminator may not be the all-out special edition that fans might’ve hoped for but this disc represents about as much as they could have reasonably expected. This is not a big Hollywood production, or even a low budget film with a huge following like Evil Dead. I doubt many vintage supplemental materials even exist and the expense of creating a new HD master would probably preclude the production of extensive, all new materials.

    inline ImageThe main supplement is a feature audio commentary with writer-director James Glickenhaus, which is moderated by Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock. Glickenhaus is generally informative though a tad disingenuous as to the quality and effectiveness of his film. There’s a lack of perspective and a tendency to make excuses for or completely spin the film’s shortcomings. Poggiali, on the other hand, makes a good moderator, gently prodding Glickenhaus with questions when the discussion begins to taper off. It’s entertaining for a listen but the commentary meanders and doesn’t really go into much depth on any one topic.

    The Original Theatrical Trailer (1:24) is presented in full HD, but it’s in pretty rough shape: soft, blurry, washed out.

    Six 30-second TV spots are also presented window boxed in full-frame HD, probably mastered from 16 mm elements. Not much else to say; the spots are about what fans would imagine and they look about as good as you’d expect.

    Final Thoughts

    inline ImageThe Exterminator is what it is, and makes no apologies for it. I’m torn. On one hand, it’s a depressing descent into sleaze and depravity that’s disjointed and confusingly assembled. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to scrub your hands with Purell after it’s over. On the other, writer-director James Glickenhaus stages his action scenes with skill and the movie is brutally efficient in giving the audience what they’ve paid to see. I can’t deny the power it had to hold my attention rapt at times, even if it couldn’t manage to do it for the entire 102 minute running time.

    Exterminator fans will rejoice that the film is finally given the HD treatment and despite its shortcomings, this is inarguably a head and shoulders upgrade over previous presentations of the film. Fans of revenge thrillers in general should definitely give a rent but the casual viewer would be far better off watching William Lustig’s Vigilante, instead.


    [​IMG] Movie - C

    Image Quality - B+*

    Sound - B+

    Supplements - C+

    *Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.

    Technical Info.
    • Colour
    • Running time - 1 hour and 42 minutes
    • Not Rated
    • 2 Discs (1 Blu-ray & 1 DVD)
    • Chapter Stops
    • English 2.0 Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
    • English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio
    • Audio Commentary with Director James Glickenhaus and Moderator Chris Poggiali
    • Theatrical Trailer
    • TV Spots
    Other Pictures

  2. ronnie21

    ronnie21 Well-Known Member

    Oct 13, 2009
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    yeah. iam sure alot of the stuff in this movie couldn't be shown today..Must have been pretty cutting edge in 1980 though..
  3. Paul_s

    Paul_s Member

    Oct 31, 2009
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    England, UK.
    Yeah, I watched this a couple of days ago and pretty much agree on all points with the review.

    It's a grimy little flick with some quite graphic (to put it mildly) scenes. I did like the helicopter scenes & stunt work in vietnam (nice camera work I thought)

    With regards to the storytelling - that bugged me a little (a lot of scenes just happened out of the blue) but can easily be forgiven (I find leaving your brain in a jar on entrance to watching this film the best course of action [​IMG] )

    I'd have given the film at least a 'B'. Not quite up there with some of the genres finest but not far off.
  4. Erick H.

    Erick H. Well-Known Member

    Aug 29, 2004
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    It's a shame it took so long for this film to get a Blu release as Robert Ginty,the star,just passed away a couple of years ago.I would have loved to have seen an interview with him about not only this series but the many other low budget 80's actioners (like LADY DRAGON) that he turned up in back in the day.Pity he left us so early.Rest In Peace.

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