Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Exterminator (1980)

Country: USA

In an interview for Arrow Video’s recent blu-ray release the writer/director of The Exterminator James Glickenhaus mentions the influence of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy, is unable to avoid (though one gets the impression he’d like too) the obvious debt paid to Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), but doesn’t even mention Rolling Thunder (1977) the film to which The Exterminator is most closely allied. It seems inconceivable that Glickenhaus wasn’t at least on nodding terms with the Flynn/Schrader production, which was the first film to explore the readjustment of returning veterans within the framework of the vigilante/action sub-genre. Admittedly The Exterminator places almost its entire emphasis on the vigilante/action angle, and emerges as less worthy and thought provoking as a result, but the plus side is that it is much more entertaining due to its total commitment to exploitation elements. In the years following Rolling Thunder cinematic representations of Vietnam had taken a more existential and philosophical route in and out of the conflict. The critical and commercial success of award winning productions such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) had made the subject the territory of self professed ‘auteur’s’ driven by ego, greed, and megalomania. By contrast Glickenhaus chose to drag the subject down into the sewer, to wallow in the shit of Grindhouse exploitation, and I for one am extremely glad of this.

Another area in which The Exterminator differs to Rolling Thunder is in the ambitiousness of the filmmaking. This is highlighted perfectly with an opening prologue set in the tropical wilds of Vietnam; in reality Indian Dunes in California. This is an extremely arresting and quite literally explosive opening that includes a truly shocking slow motion decapitation that illustrates the excellence of Stan Winston’s special make up effects. This prologue is entirely designed to establish the debt owed by George Eastland (Robert Ginty) too his saviour and friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James), and as the dark Vietnam night segues into the concrete skyline of New York, it’s a debt he is later required to pay off, but unfortunately for the criminal scum of New York City, he pays it off with interest! Glickenhaus and DOP Robert M. Baldwin capture the urban decay and disintegration of New York City very successfully, the camera explores the filth and iniquity of the slums, and while there is a certain degree of environmental alienation, this is not extended to our heroic veterans; in fact Eastland and Jefferson seem very well adjusted, they are both holding down respectable jobs at a meat packing plant, and Jefferson is doing a decent job of looking after his family. They are not itching for violence, they are not disillusioned and disenfranchised, and they are respondents to events out of their control.

The reason for this is almost certainly due to the fact that Glickenhaus isn’t interested in their social reintegration; the characters are completely one dimensional, because underdeveloped writing serves the premise better. After Jefferson is left for dead and on a life support machine the film shifts gear into a position it is far more comfortable with. Eastland’s revenge is swift and brutal, and is also uncommonly imaginative. There are a few moments when doubt crosses the face of Eastland, who is played with a kind of strange vulnerable naivety by Robert Ginty, but his decision to leave two gang members to have their faces bitten off by rats masks a calculating sadism. This is fate of an ironic and poetical variety; vermin eating vermin. The film becomes a succession of episodes such as this, shot through with a pitch black vein of humour, delivered in dead pan fashion by a man who creates a persona for himself called The Exterminator. One of these episodes has become the signature moment of the movie; in a totally ridiculous plot development Eastland punishes a mob boss for his lies by feeding him through a mincing machine! Moments such as these illustrate the true motivations of the filmmakers, as a thin and insubstantial narrative is a mere device for a succession of lurid and sick events, but these events pack a punch, especially as the director is apt to linger adoringly on moments of violence and cruelty.

The juvenile screenplay sees fit to mask its intentions by introducing several subplots which add needless padding. The first is a perfunctory and lifeless police investigation by Detective James Dalton (Christopher George), who turns out to be a veteran himself, and in a moment of uncharacteristic solidarity allows The Exterminator an opportunity to flee. Tied in with this is a completely facile and astonishingly stupid romance involving the eccentric cop and Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar), this is totally out of place, out of pace, and included purely to add to the running time. The third is an unconvincing and pointless governmental conspiracy that sees a member of the CIA conduct his own covert investigation in order to eliminate The Exterminator to save the blushes of politicians. The writer/director says nothing illuminating about the nature of political corruption; it’s corruption for the sake of it, or in this case to add precious minutes to a skeletal premise. The only moment of surprise in this reactionary tale is the survival of Eastland, who crawls onto the shore to an uncertain future, but one in which his crimes have seemingly gone unpunished. For all its myriad weaknesses somehow The Exterminator, and I admit to being mystified to how, is incredibly entertaining and enjoyable. It doesn’t suffer from pretensions, it treats the material with the boyish enthusiasm it deserves, and ultimately emerges as a worthwhile endeavour.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Recentnly we studied Carol Churchill's Top Girls in which she mentions this film and I had to provide the class with a breif synopsis- amazing how many people asked me if it was on DVD. Once again a great review :)

  2. Sounds like a fun watch, trashy eighties grindhouse! There's a lot of movies about vietnam vets who just can't seem to fit back into society, Bob Clark's Deathdream comes to mind. And of course, First Blood. But this one seems more grindhouse then all the others.

  3. I watched this for the first time earlier in the year, and like yourself, was pretty charmed by it. You hit the nail on the head when you said that while it isn't as provocative as other films about returning 'Nam vets, "it is much more entertaining due to its total commitment to exploitation elements." I agree 100%, though I have to say I did found it strangely moving at the end. It was WAY better than I thought it would be. Great review!

  4. @ Cal - thanks for stopping by, I never got the opportunity to mention or discuss this film during my college or university years, which is a shame!

    @ Franco - DEATHDREAM is a film I've championed for many years, I think it represents the best of Bob Clark. Of course his attempts to fit back into society are not helped by the fact that he's a zombie! There were a couple prior to THE EXTERMINATOR - the aforementioned ROLLING THUNDER, COMING HOME, and THE DEER HUNTER. Yeah this is certainly more grindhouse, and in fact the film has a sequence in which the lead character walks down 42nd Street!

    @ James - I think a lot of people are going to discover this film now it's been put out in a decent transfer. This is one movie that has really suffered over the years, I remember first seeing it on VHS in a butchered print, and then in an uncut form, but in abysmal quality, on a DVD put out by some fly-by-night distributor. Of course in some cases such tacky second generation prints actually seem to enhance the mood and feel of a pictures; especially in the case of Video Nasties. But THE EXTERMINATOR is very well made, beautifully photographed, and deserves its moment to shine in High Definition.

  5. "The critical and commercial success of award winning productions such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) had made the subject the territory of self professed ‘auteur’s’ driven by ego, greed, and megalomania." Aw, come on, Shaun good buddy, a little megalomania in a director is sometimes a very good thing! Even a God complex serves the form sometimes. I love your point, though, even if I happen to be a fan of pretentious Vietnam films. Luckily, I am also a fan of trashy Vietnam films. Case in point: I love ROLLING THUNDER. I know you know I hold this film in higher regard than yourself... ah, but that's what makes film fandom so great! One guy likes his burger with jack, the other with cheddar! Regardless, I think you'll agree: sometimes a little "extra" cheese goes a long way... a long way indeed...

    All that being said, I haven't seen this reputedly depraved bit of grindhouse gold. I know, I know, please don't kill me. After reading this review (which is one of the main reasons I read it to begin with: to open up my film viewing experience to forgotten byways and highways) though, I know I need to. Here's my problem: I don't have blu-ray, yet. Would it be worth trying to find a decent DVD copy of it, or should I wait until I get around to blu-ray?

    Oh, and sorry I've been MIA from these pages these past few weeks. Rather busy trying to get my script out at the moment. Pray to the Gods of Celluloid that your good pal Greg is going to get this one in the can in the not too far off future. Cheers, amigo!

  6. Hello there Greg! Good to see you my friend. I think a dash of megalomania is fine, if the individual displaying such behaviour is an interesting and/or intriguing character. I don't mind it in say a Stanley Kubrick, but by all accounts Michael Cimino was a repulsive little bastard. I've never really forgiven him for almost single-handedly destroying the western as a Hollywood genre worthy of major budgetary investment.

    As for viewing THE EXTERMINATOR Greg; I really think the blu-ray's (Synapse in the US, Arrow in the UK) are so markedly better than the previous DVD releases that they're the ideal format in which to own the film, If you're just interested in viewing it though, then my advice is to follow this link, and watch it for free!

    This is also the uncut version (which is important) and the print is pretty good, just blow it up to fullscreen and enjoy! Let me know what you think :-)

    The best of luck to your latest script, I really hope it works out for you - oh and do you have a link to the short you made a few years ago? I wouldn't mind giving it the once over.

  7. I remember my dad and my uncle talking about this movie a lot when I was a kid. I never really understood what all the fuss was about. I haven't seen it in several years, but thought it was successful at being a trashy exploitation movie and little else. The sequel is pretty horrible and the cover image of him and the flamethrower is finally put to good use.

    One of the best, in my opinion, and most important of the Vietnam Vets Go Crazy sub genre is 1972s WELCOME HOME SOLDIER BOYS starring Joe Don Baker, Alan Vint and Paul Koslo and directed by Richard Compton who directed the classic Southern Gothic drive in smash MACON COUNTY LINE (1974). I reviewed SOLDIER BOYS back in Feb '11 if you wish to look into it, Shaun.


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