Directed by James Glickenhaus
Distributed by Synapse Films
I’m not sure when I started feeling old, but saying they don’t make films like The Exterminator anymore certainly makes me feel like my father. It doesn’t make the sentiment any less correct, however, as James Glickenhaus’ gritty early 80s revenge epic is as down-and-dirty as they come. The kind of experience that makes you want to take a shower immediately after and then go right back for more.
The opening sets the stage rather accurately for what’s to come. A Vietnam era bloodbath establishes our titular character as a man with plenty of emotional baggage. John Eastland (Robert Ginty) is a simple guy suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. So much so that his day-to-day routine is plagued by flashbacks of his brutal Vietnam experience. Things reach their boiling point when fellow veteran Steve James is brutally attacked by a local gang of NYC thugs called the Ghetto Ghouls. He’s crippled in the attack, leaving behind a wife and daughter he’s unable to care for.
Eastland thinks nothing of taking to the streets on a mission of revenge as he tracks the bangers to their hideout, executing them brutally. But it doesn’t stop there as Eastland gets a taste for the violence and takes to cleaning up the streets of NYC in all sorts of alarmingly brutal ways.
The Exterminator earns distinction from its peers by presenting a hero who is mentally unstable. Writer/director Glickenhaus doesn’t ask audiences to rally behind the titular vigilante as he racks up an impressive body count. Instead, the film takes a sterile viewpoint that allows the audience to make up its own mind regarding the actions of the main character. To be clear, however, it’s not all that difficult to fault Eastland considering some of the filth he murders. The “chicken coop” sequence, involving a particularly uncomfortable-looking pedophile, is one such scene that comes to mind.
The Exterminator fits nicely alongside another NYC-based grit-fest, Maniac, for as nasty as it feels. It’s occasionally hindered by a useless subplot involving detective Christopher George and his romantic excursions amidst a murder investigation and furthermore by some questionable storytelling (like why Eastland is so easily bested by the thugs at the beginning if he’s such a tough/crazy guy) that doesn’t always fly in the face of logic. But for every weakness, there is the discomfort of watching an unhinged war veteran stalking the streets of New York City on a mission of murder. Some have balked at the main character’s motivation to rob his prey as a means of supporting the wife and child of his maimed friend, but it’s one of the few plot points that actually succeeds in humanizing Eastland by illustrating his misguided efforts to do the right thing.
In terms of brutality, the film certainly doesn’t disappoint. From the opening decapitation (in which the severed head hangs from one little flap of skin), The Exterminator doesn’t flinch when it comes to gruesome moments – like when Eastland lowers a high-profile gangster into an economy-sized meat grinder while he begs hopelessly for his life. This is dark stuff, but it’s a cinematic trip that every 42nd Street fan needs to take. Again and again. They may not make ‘em like this anymore, but they don’t make ‘em any better either.
Oh, Synapse. How I love thee. I’ve been a longtime admirer of The Exterminator since childhood, when my father didn’t think much of letting a nine-year-old kid watch this (thanks again, Dad!), and I’ve owned this film on VHS, DVD and now Blu-ray. Believe me when I tell you that this film has never had an acceptable home video version until now. This Synapse 1080p presentation is very high quality, true to the source material and as good as you can possibly get! It’s important to note that The Exterminator is never going to “pop” like many modern-day films, but for a low-budget, early 1980s exploitation flick, Synapse has gone above and beyond to deliver an absolutely gorgeous looking disc! There’s plenty of detail on display in the film’s grungy locations, and watching the film in high resolution reveals complex textures all around. Colors are very strong and sturdy – from Eastland’s olive green jacket to the blood red squib explosions – and black levels are strong. No banding issues here. Those of you worried about high definition “cleaning up” your favorite grunge classics, worry not! This version of The Exterminator wields a wonderfully strong and natural film grain structure. For the first time in thirty years, Synapse has given fans a chance to see this grindhouse classic in all its glory. No one in their right mind would be disappointed with this incredible high definition restoration.
On the audio front you’ve got two options: A DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track or monaural 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Both versions are perfectly fine, with the 2.0 channel track offering balanced dialogue and textured sound FX/music. The mono track is similar, with the difference between the two being negligible. Whichever your poison, you’re bound to enjoy The Exterminator just fine.
There’s also a great commentary track with writer/director Glickenhaus and blogger/moderator Chris Poggiali. This is a fun and informative discussion for fans, and I’m willing to bet they’ll eat it up like I did. Every facet is covered, and while I would’ve liked some more information on Exterminator 2, I wasn’t expecting it as Glickenhaus wasn’t involved in that sequel. Regardless, this is a very enjoyable listen. The other extras are a trailer, some television spots, and a DVD copy of the film.
The Exterminator was one of my most anticipated Blu-ray releases of the year, and I’m happy to report that Synapse knocked it out of the park. This personal favorite arrives in high definition spouting picture quality so detailed that you’ll feel the sleaze as you watch it. Couple the excellent technical specs with a nice commentary track, and you’ve got a must-have release. If you’ve never seen this one and it sounds like you might enjoy it, rest assured, you will. Highly recommended.
4 out of 5
3 out of 5