Directed by James Glickenhaus
Distributed by Arrow Video
If there’s a movie whose cover art epitomised the B-movie excess of the early and mid Eighties, it would have to be James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator. That ultimately misleading image of the bike helmet-adorned, titular avenger wielding his intimidating flame thrower beckoned every time from VHS shelves and postered walls with promises of gleefully extreme filmic violence and bloody catharsis. In reality, The Exterminator is a somewhat more thoughtful and restrained piece of work than it initially appears, something which equally plays to both its favour and its detriment.
The story here is focused on Vietnam veteran John Eastland (Ginty), trying to eke out an honest living on the mean streets of New York while dealing with his own post-traumatic demons. After a bombastic war-set opening sporting a particularly gruesome Stan Winston-realised beheading, Eastland finds himself on a rapid downward spiral into vigilante justice when his best friend and fellow vet, Mike, is left paralysed in hospital by a gang of hoodlums. Not just content with taking down the thugs responsible, Eastland becomes a ruthless stalker of the night with his brutal intentions turned towards all kinds of scum from pimps and paedophiles, all the way up to high-flying mob bosses.
Comparisons to Michael Winner’s Death Wish are inevitable; yet, Glickenhaus’ film is quite a different animal at heart. The same kind of grimy, gritty feel drips from the screen, but the approach to its protagonist is particularly quirky. John Eastland is a man whose cage is already thoroughly rattled before the plot here even begins. Unable to reconcile with his rage, his relentlessly violent, and ever escalating, reaction to events is inevitable; however, in an interesting nuance this isn’t just about vengeance as he also seeks to ensure Mike’s family are taken care of, even if he doesn’t exactly go about it the right way. A further factor that manages to make the character particularly interesting is in fact the casting choice of lead Robert Ginty. Less stereotypical action hero and more baby-faced everyman, The Exterminator is like watching a member of The Beatles go ape shit on scumbags, and it makes for a strangely subversive slice of exploitation cinema.
Violence in The Exterminator is sporadic but highly effective, with bodies thrown against walls by gunfire, explosive shots to the groin with mercury-tipped rounds, live immolation and even lowering into a meat grinder. Things get pretty grim, but Glickenhaus’ presentation stops just shy of making it all a bit too heavy for the story’s foundations to handle whilst also remaining grounded enough that it never becomes outright popcorn fantasy.
On the negative side of things, after events really kick off and Eastland sets about doing his thing, the third act of The Exterminator becomes far too talky and plodding. A subplot involving Christopher George as a detective on Eastland’s tail is extremely underdeveloped, with meandering scenes concerning his burgeoning love life feeling like completely needless filler considering how little effect the character actually has on narrative development. It serves to suck much of the life from the film, leaving it feeling decidedly less energetic by the time the disappointingly abrupt ending comes around. Despite these problems, The Exterminator remains a more than worthy curio for fans of the era’s output, not to mention the perfect double-feature flick alongside the aforementioned Death Wish… and there’s no better time to add it to your collection than right now with this Arrow Video release.
The image here is consistently great with pleasing colour reproduction, a noticeable level of texturing and a sharp, solid presentation. Doubly pleasing is the fact that opposite the more-than-obvious visual improvements of the transfer, The Exterminator still retains a spot on amount of filmic grain. Here, we get the best of both worlds: an impressive modern presentation that manages to lose none of the signs of age that so absolutely aid in producing its gritty, grubby atmosphere. The mono audio track aids the retro feel, leaving Arrow’s release of The Exterminator a sure bet for the flick’s fans.
Beginning with a short introduction with director James Glickenhaus beckoning us to enjoy the show, the special features on Arrow’s disc kick off in earnest with High Rising Productions’ “Fire and Slice: Making The Exterminator“, an extended 17-minute interview with director James Glickenhaus that offers plenty of short, snappy nuggets of info regarding his influences, casting decisions, the politics of the film and more. Next on the table is a featurette sporting cult director Frank Henenlotter as your guide on a nostalgia-ridden tour of modern day 42nd Street in comparison to his frequently hilarious memories of how it used to be “back in the day”. His recounting of the horrifyingly scatological protest method employed by one homeless woman when told to be quiet during a film screening alone makes this one worth watching.
The centrepiece of the special features here is a feature commentary with producer Mark Buntzman, moderated by genre writer and journalist Calum Waddell. Less the kind of play-by-play discussion of the film as it progresses that you would expect with most commentary tracks, this one comes across as more of a lengthy interview conducted by Waddell as the film plays in the background. This is by no means a bad thing, as he keeps the tone upbeat and affable with plenty of belly laughs shared between the two, and Buntzman proves himself a treasure trove of anecdotes and experience behind the scenes of the era. It moves along at a brisk pace and, most importantly for any commentary track, is never boring. Well worth a listen.
Arrow’s usual slew of physical extras are also on display here but unfortunately were not included for review purposes.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5