The 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 ConnectionÖa 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 genreís 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 ďsmall, unclean exercise in shame.Ē 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.
John 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 Michaelís quick thinking.
Returning 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 mafiaís influence has had in the grocery business. He starts to work his way up the criminal food chain.
Someone whose handiwork is as visible as Johnís canít go unnoticed for long: heís quickly dubbed ďThe ExterminatorĒ 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. Daltonís 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 Exterminatorís 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 spilledÖand if an opening is left for a sequel, well, so much the better.
Despite its reputation for the harshness of its content my biggest problem with The Exterminator wasnít with the onscreen violence, but with the assembly of the film itself. Thatís not to say that The Exterminatorís reputation isnít well earned - it is. The violence is every bit as sleazy and repellent as itís purposed to be. Along with the expected shootings and beatings thereís 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 didnít 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. Itís 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 donít establish the characters and their relationships very well. Weíre eleven minutes into movie before we even know the names of the two leads.
Okay, 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 Ghoulís attack on Michael, is handled in such a slapdash way itís 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 Michaelís 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 thereís an insert shot that shows Michael recovering in the hospital after surgery. Thereís no sense of a workable timeline and, as a result, no sense of forward momentum - itís 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. Itís not cut like a narrative, itís cut like a highlight reel.
I didnít hate The Exterminator but I did resent the laziness of its storytelling. Itís 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 didnít want to waste time on transitional scenes that the audience didnít need. Thatís a legit strategy but thereís a world of difference between that and what he actually does: make the audience do all the narrative heavy lifting. I guess weíre just not expected to give the film this much thought and Iím willing to do thatÖ 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 heís 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, heís 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.
Further 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. Thereís an exterior shot of the Ghoulís clubhouse, all painted in dayglo colors and lit by the strobe of the light from a police car that has an eerie beauty thatís positively haunting, and a scene inside an underground sex parlor has a similar, almost Kubrickian look to it. Itís 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.
The Exterminator is presented in a 1.78 AVC transfer that looks to have been struck from well preserved materials- thereís 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 thereís a scene that looks utterly fantastic, with bright, well saturated colors and sharp detail. Synapseís 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 itís a well presented and well balanced track. Sound effects are present but never overpowering. The score is pounding when needed and quiet when appropriate. Itís not going to knock your socks off but itís far preferable to an artificial 5.1 mix where the surrounds are filled with canned effects. Kudos to Synapse for preserving the original audio.
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 mightíve 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.
The 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. Thereís a lack of perspective and a tendency to make excuses for or completely spin the filmís shortcomings. Poggiali, on the other hand, makes a good moderator, gently prodding Glickenhaus with questions when the discussion begins to taper off. Itís entertaining for a listen but the commentary meanders and doesnít really go into much depth on any one topic.
The Original Theatrical Trailer (1:24) is presented in full HD, but itís 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 youíd expect.
The Exterminator is what it is, and makes no apologies for it. Iím torn. On one hand, itís a depressing descent into sleaze and depravity thatís disjointed and confusingly assembled. Itís the kind of movie that makes you want to scrub your hands with Purell after itís 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 theyíve paid to see. I canít deny the power it had to hold my attention rapt at times, even if it couldnít 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 Lustigís Vigilante, instead.
*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.
yeah. iam sure alot of the stuff in this movie couldn't be shown today..Must have been pretty cutting edge in 1980 though..
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 :D )
I'd have given the film at least a 'B'. Not quite up there with some of the genres finest but not far off.
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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