When I first came across the fantastically misleading artwork for a ropey, BBFC-sanitised VHS of The Exterminator
in my local video shop, I could but dream of the grisly thrills it held in store. 'Some years' later, that flame-thrower wielding, black helmeted vigilante still holds a giddy allure, even if experience tells you that the film itself can never quite live up to the one imagined in an excitable teenager's imagination. Yet coming back to James Glickenhaus's 1980 'video nasty' with fresh eyes reveals an engaging, flawed, and gripping revenge flick. Is it the all-out, non-stop, action-packed orgy of lurid nastiness it was once billed as? No, but its charms lie elsewhere.
Having survived Vietnam and returned home, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and his best friend Mike (Steve James) lead a modest but happy existence in the scuzzier side of New York. After fighting off a gang of thugs trying to steal from their boss, Mike is ambushed by the gang and left paralysed from the neck down by the attack. Eastland retaliates, hunting down and dispatching the hoodlums with ease. Having snapped under the pressure, our fed-up hero takes it upon himself to mete out justice to an assortment of low lives across the city.
Whilst the tale of a Vietnam vet returning to civilian life (but really still fighting a war inside) is something of a cliché now, it's worth remembering, as Glickenhaus is quick to point out in the extras, that The Exterminator pre-dates more famous offerings such as Ted Kotcheff's First Blood. And though it clearly owes a debt to Taxi Driver (complete with unfeasibly pretty prostitute waiting to be rescued) The Exterminator is unique enough to stand on its own exploitation legs. Robert Ginty makes for an oddly sympathetic lead and refuses to fit the gung-ho mould, with almost childlike, soft facial features and gleaming blond hair. A mixture of confusion, horror and determination renders him likeable and impressively rounded. Christopher George (City of the Living Dead) stands out in the supporting cast as the obligatory hardened, cynical detective on Eastland's tale. A zeitgeisty soundtrack over long helicopter tracking shots of New York compounds the feeling that this was conceived as more than just a guy with a gun movie.
That said, we are still in exploitation territory (despite the relatively large box office) and true to that Glickenhaus keeps the story pacey and the action punchy. He conjures up a horribly sleazy ambiance as Eastland visits brothels and takes on some truly nasty characters. Less successful is the film's central gang, The Ghetto Ghouls, who seem to have got lost on the way to an audition for The Warriors. Their comic stylings feel off in the broader context of the piece and at times feel awfully twee. There are some baffling, missing reel type edits, even in this longer director's cut, and as you'd expect the dialogue isn't always entirely convincing. Budget limitations are apparent too - some key deaths are conspicuously off-screen, presumably because all the effects budget was spent on the film's incredible Stan Winston-handled decapitation in the Vietnam prologue. The remaining action scenes and death-dealing, whilst fun, never quite hit full auto again.
Yet, in the mark of a triumphant exploitation pic, none of this matters. It's still a wonderful, dirty little revenge flick with a memorable and, dare I say it, affecting central performance. If you catch its B-movie vibe you'll be with John Eastland to the bitter end.
The picture is generally fantastic, with strong detail and vibrant yet apparently faithful colour reproduction. Grain and some artifacts do make an appearance in the dark opening credits, and Vietnam prologue in particular. After that things settle down and there's little to complain about elsewhere for a film of this vintage. It never feels like the atmosphere's been compromised with the improved picture either.
The mono audio track is mostly clear and balanced well though occasionally dialogue volume seems to dip.
Fire And Slice: Making The Exterminator - an interview with James Glickenhaus (18 mins)
A talking head interview with the director addressing the story, reception and context of the film's production. Glickenhaus is enlightening and candid for the most part.
Introduction to the film by director James Glickenhaus
Exactly what it sounds like.
42nd Street Then And Now - a tour of New York's former sleaze circuit with director Frank Henenlotter (15 mins)
The cult director and 42nd Street historian/fan waxes lyrical about the street along which some of the film's pivotal scenes were set. Henenlotter is a superb host; energetic, enthusiastic, open and knowledgeable. Clearly lamenting the tide of respectability and commercial blandness that's obliterated the area since the early 90s he also adds a sombre note to proceedings.
Audio commentary by Mark Buntzman, producer of The Exterminator and writer-director of The Exterminator II, moderated by Calum Waddell
Another typically entertaining and informative commentary with Waddell probing effectively. Alas no Ginty or Steve James, since both died relatively young.
This is undoubtedly a top quality package and, whilst not featuring the most comprehensive string of extras found on the more revered of Arrow's releases, they're of a high standard.
This is J Hurtado pitching in on the packaging:
The Exterminator is packaged with a nice little essay on the film from David Hayles, which illuminates not only the background for the film, but helps to put in in context of the Vietnam nightmare films of the time. He touches upon the flashback film genre and how, in this case, it crossed over with the NYC vigilante film genre and make for some great, if unsettling, entertainment. Also included is a fold out poster of the fantastic cover art from The Dude Designs' Tom Hodge as well as changeable cover art from the US, Spain, and Japan. Rounding out the inserts is a fantastic Arrow Video catalog that serves it's purpose in making you want to buy more stuff! All around, this is a fantastic little package, and well worth the modest investment.
The Exterminator (cert. 18) will be released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 7th November 2011.
Introduction to the film by director James Glickenhaus; Fire And Slice: Making The Exterminator - an interview with James Glickenhaus; 42nd Street Then And Now - a tour of New York's former sleaze circuit with director Frank Henenlotter; audio commentary by Mark Buntzman, producer of The Exterminator and writer-director of The Exterminator II, moderated by Calum Waddell; collectors' booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by critic David Hayles; reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork; double sided fold out artwork poster; original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; original uncompressed LPCM mono audio.