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DVD Grindhouse: "The Exterminator" (1980) by Andy Lalino
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It was near-traumatizing viewing this gritty, NYC vigilante movie realizing that many of the apocalyptic settings depicted are now dust in the wind. They've since been replaced by sanitized, family-friendly locales, more closely resembling Downtown Disney than the grindhouse-era New York we once knew and loved. Well, that's progress for you. Enjoy your Starbucks.
If unfamiliar with the heralded Exterminator series, horror/exploitation fans will find the films a salacious treat. The original movie, from 1980 (note: there is a 1984 sequel titled Exterminator 2, which incidentally I viewed first on VHS, of course!), comes as a 2005 no-frills DVD edition digitally remastered but lacking any bonus features whatsoever. For what it's worth, the print, for the most part, looks fantastic despite infrequent scratches, which typically cannot be avoided when processing older source material.
I can't think of another movie, set in a then-current time period (1980), that showcases such a varied yet successful mixture of cinematic elements: vigilante violence, post-apocalyptica, war, grindhouse splatter (featuring SPFX by the late Stan Winston), exploitation, action, and drama. It's no surprise that The Exterminator enjoys the reputation it's earned - and deservedly so. Rewind back to the '70s - a period ripe with vigilante/rape-revenge movies (most notably Death Wish, an admitted influence, and I Spit on Your Grave). It was a time when populations perceived - especially in big cities - a rampant sense of lawlessness and decay, coupled by feelings of abandonment by an indifferent, ineffective, and corrupt police force. So who do you hope makes like Mick Hucknall and comes to your aid while the cavalry pigs out on jelly donuts?
Why, The Exterminator, of course!
Warning: The following review contains spoilers:
The action begins immediately, with an explosive prologue set in the 'Nam jungle. John Eastland is an American soldier, captured and sadistically tortured by the Vietnamese enemy. At the brink of certain death, he's rescued by fellow warrior Mike Jefferson (the late, great Steve James). They escape, and return to the U.S., forced to confront a new kind of jungle teeming with its own pitfalls: New York City circa 1980. Both friends land loading dock jobs from a corrupt mobster sympathizer, leaving Jefferson open to the lunatic actions The Ghouls, a gang of ruthless street thugs. Eventually, Jefferson is brutalized into a vegetable, giving Eastland the enraged motivation needed to take law into his own hands and avenge his friend.
What follows is a parade of imaginative vigilante violence, with the likable Eastland going after not only the thugs who crippled Jefferson, but who terrorize everyday citizens. There's a great scene of the aforementioned boss-mobster being lowered into an industrial meat grinder, a street creep intimidated by blowtorch, The Exterminator's motorcycle assault on a '70s muscle car, and an attack on a child porn palace (called "The Chickenhawk House"). Of course, the fuzz can't stand to be one-upped, so off goes B-movie demigod Christopher George (as Det. James Dalton, also a 'Nam vet) to hunt down The Ex.
One knock I'll wage on the film is the misuse of Samantha Eggar as Dr. Megan Stewart, who works at the hospital Jefferson stays and serves as love interest to Det. Dalton. There's a noticeable mismatch of character development, as if director James Glickenhaus is purposely shying away from giving equal dimension to females. It's evident that Glickenhaus's intention is to remain distant, however Dr. Stewart's treatment comes off as ignored rather than alien. Why, I can't even recall one close-up of her, and were it not for the credits, may even have mistaken her as being someone else of lesser star status.
For exploitation junkies, there's a gratuitous scene of a (topless) hooker tortured via soldering iron (dipped in petroleum jelly) for not participating in pedophilia. She later propositions Ex, who notices the burn scars on her shoulders and breasts, and goes ballistic. Interesting to note that the sleazy proprietor of the Chickenhawk House is familiar Italian-American actor Tony DiBenedetto. The revenge scenes are definitely a highlight, with a repulsive state senator being shot point blank during a very depraved act!
Robert Ginty is terrific as Eastland. He's an everyday Joe people can relate to, and allows the audience to live out the fantasy of being cop, judge, and jury all on one circumstance. In essence, he's no different than the comic book superheroes we all enjoy, only darker and starker. Ginty fans, I'm certain, enjoyed his reprise of the Eastland role in Exterminator 2.
Interesting to note that despite the one-sheet and DVD cover, The Exterminator never wields a flame thrower - the closest thing utilized is an aforementioned blow torch. Exterminator fans would have to wait for the '84 sequel to live out that fricasseed fantasy, where there are creep-burnings galore. Some fans would say, and from what I recall of the film would agree, that in a rare cinematic instance, the sequel is even better.
Realize that grindhouse/exploitation fans, as opposed to the average movie goer, will bestow more appreciation on a film such as this. One element that fascinates me about exploitation films of this period is that The Exterminator, in addition to When A Stranger Calls, Basket Case, etc., purposefully intends to alienate the viewer by immersing them in intrinsically uncomfortable circumstances. We can relate to Eastland , but behind the likability is a violent madman with vicious intent who has no qualms about using sadistic tactics in retaliation for abuses. Glickenhaus never allows us to get too close to anyone, and there's no humor, unless counting the amusing bizarreness of The Exterminator's killings. There's a chilling scene where Eastland performs a morally questionable act on the very person his avenging motivation springs from, and even more strange: an unexpected scene of Dalton and Stewart having sex in a hospital room while on the job. The cops and the CIA are not to be trusted, with a surprise ending alluding to a worldwide conspiracy. The film's opening scene depicts horrifying violence of the Vietnam war - and the beheading of Americans that has to certainly rank as one of the best depicted on film. A seedy New York - the very environment of the movie - is additionally unsettling. Every shot and scene radiates a cold, alien presence that only a handful of directors of the time (Glickenhaus, Lynch, Henenlotter, Walton) could successfully administer.
"Oddservations" is ©2008 by Andy Lalino. The Oddservations banner is a creation of Andy Lalino. All other graphics, except where otherwise noted, are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.