Tagline: In war you have to kill to stay alive … on the streets of New York, it’s often the same.
Director: James Glickenhaus
Writer: James Glickenhaus
Starring: Robert Ginty, Samantha Eggar, Christopher George, Steve James, Tony DiBenedetto, Dick Boccelli, Patrick Farrelly
1h 39min | Action, Crime, Exploitation | 21 July 1980 (UK)
Budget: $2,000,000 (estimated)
The Exterminator is the very definition of exploitation cinema.
Landing somewhere between Rambo and Death Wish, it possesses the justifications of neither, adopting the latter’s quasi-fascist vigilante theme and basking in the thrill of the torture. As far as writer/director James Glickenhaus is concerned, poverty breeds paper-thin monsters who would serve well as target practice in an arcade shooter, and becoming a mindless serial killer is the only way to save humanity from stereotype-led damnation.
Like all of the most dubious revenge flicks, the theme is pure childish fantasy, though the consequences and actions are anything but. Still, as long as you’re not sick enough to go out onto the streets and imitate this kind of processed baloney, it’s pretty harmless, and if nothing else you have to appreciate its sheer audacity.
The film tells the story of John Eastland (Robert Ginty), a Vietnam veteran who escapes the horrors of war, only to be confronted by the urban battleground of New York City. Still reeling from the murder of his soldier friend on foreign shores, he is soon pushed over the edge when his city chum (Steve James) is pounced upon by a gang of racist thugs and left paralysed, resulting in the kind of laughably dramatic scenes that must have been the inspiration for Nordberg’s hospitalisation in the original Naked Gun movie.
While Rambo and Death Wish gave us authentic, morally conflicted characters whose immoral plight you could empathise with, The Exterminator gives us the kind of bland lead who would struggle to light up a terrestrial TV cop show, a man who goes from A to B to the bloody recesses of C while you’re still trying to figure out the nature of his unethical alphabet. He even manages to come to the aid of a tortured prostitute in the kind of half-assed sympathy play that trivalises all of the world’s social issues. This woman is not drug-addicted, nor is she on the hustle. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have any emotional baggage whatsoever. She simply needs a man to put a bullet in her cardboard oppressors and all is roses.
Though the movie’s violence can be considered tame by today’s standards ― a beheading within the first two minutes not withstanding ― it is the implications and lack of insight that pang of nihilism, making for some pretty startling viewing. Because of Ginty’s inability to portray any kind of notable character evolution, his moral crusade seems like outright insanity, and when pursuing detective James Dalton (Christopher George) inevitably sees the error of his ways and gives the City’s most notorious and horrifically creative killer a pass, you realise that the screenplay didn’t give Ginty a chance.
The movie does have some visual authenticity. Glickenhaus does a fine job of capturing the grainy underbelly of ’80s New York with some rather nice framing of the city at large, giving us a few relatively decent stunts to boot. We also have a by-the-numbers romance between Dalton and Dr. Megan Stewart, but even with the added bonus of The Brood‘s Samantha Eggar, the narrative fails to register, with no time to develop beyond noisy meetings in a club that defy dialogue.
But at the end of the day, who cares? If you’re actively watching this movie so long after its release you’re doing so for its fabled disrepute, and as a vehicle for breakneck exploitation it will not disappoint. The Exterminator would lead to the kind of critical backlash one would expect, but that is precisely the point. It’s the sleaze and the torture and the darker side of the human condition that sells tickets, appealing to our basest fantasies.
There are some who would condemn you for watching this kind of mindless trash, but more damning is the notion that those people are unwilling to accept the fact that human beings are compelled as much by darkness as they are by light.
After all, it is just a movie.
Establishing the identity of the sleazy Mafioso at the head of New York’s unconscionable street thuggery, Eastland chains his latest victim above the opening of a meat grinder, and after a brief diversion to his mansion for funds returns to unceremoniously dump him inside the contraption, turning the crook into mincemeat.
Most Damning Act of Street Violence
Cornering Eastland’s soon-to-be-paralysed bud after a foiled robbery, a gang of thugs take revenge by digging a garden fork into his back and scraping it along the length of his spine. Very ugly indeed!
Most Absurd Moment
The entire hospital scene is just preposterous, despite the horrific tragedy that leads us there. I’m not sure if it’s due to insane overacting on the part of Michele Harrell, or whether the juxtapose of a paper-thin screenplay conveying unjustifiable acts makes her performance seem that way. Whatever the reason, someone deserves a very special award.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Appalled by the relatively mild behaviour of one of his targets, remorseless serial killer John Eastland makes an astonishingly hypocritical observation:
John Eastland: You really are a sick motherfucker, you know that?