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.
In 1980, vigilante movies were nothing new. In fact, they had a long and storied history and were already a staple of modern cinema. It’s origins go as far back as 1938’s Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, while Ingmar Bergman’s rape revenge fantasy The Virgin Spring and Akira Kurosawa‘s samurai masterpiece Yojimba both stand tall in the realms of cinematic vengeance. The Western genre would lay claim to the same model during the 1960s, movies such as Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western The Wild Bunch bringing a healthy dose of catharsis to its bloody and lawless leanings. Soon after, Blaxploitation and Clint Eastwood would take the vigilante mantra to the urban battlegrounds, the Dirty Harry series proving an inspiration for movies such as Charles Bronson’s genre defining Death Wish, though Paul Kersey would walk a slippery slope after Golan-Globus bought the rights to the series amidst cartel skulduggery and Ronald Reagan’s hypocritical War on Drugs.
In a sense, The Exterminator is an innovator in its own right, and in a way that is highly questionable. Exploitation had gotten its grubby little mitts on the vigilante picture previously, most notably in Meir Zarchi’s notorious ‘video nasty‘ I Spit On Your Grave, but the American government’s disdain for poor minorities who were deemed useless to capitalism had never been more bitter tasting as it had with The Exterminator, which demonised America’s lunatic fringe with the transparent aggression of a terminal illness. The no-nonsense cure for that illness comes in the form 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 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.
The scene that precedes it is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is downright horrendous — not just in terms of graphic brutality but in the way that it depicts inner-city life. So bereft of individuality are the gaggle of perpetrators you’d have no qualms with pulling out a pistol and shooting them dead yourself, and the thin characterisation doesn’t stop there. 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 trivialises 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 spectacular 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 the 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. Just imagine such a plot development in today’s world. It’s unthinkable. But back in 1980 it was completely reasonable.
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 get an opening scene in Vietnam that cost a pretty penny (twenty percent of the movie’s $2,000,000 budget), though the scene was actually shot at Indian Dunes National Park in California, regardless of the movie’s claims to the contrary. Still, it’s still pretty impressive for a movie with such monetary restrictions. 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. I was also disappointed by the fact that, unlike its wholly misleading promotional poster, Ginty doesn’t walk around in a bicycle helmet wielding a flamethrower, which was half the reason why I was looking forward to seeing the movie. He does use one in an early scene as a source of intimidation, but I was expecting the biker version of Jason Voorhees setting goons on fire left, right and centre. Underhanded ’80s promotion, you gotta love it!
Another notable face comes in the form of future Cannon go-to Steve James, who in 1985 would subject the American Ninja screenplay to rewrites in order to transform his character from an inane subordinate into the brick shithouse with the million dollar smile action fans would grow to love. It’s not surprising when you consider his role here: a helpless black sidekick to McGinty’s benevolent white knight, though the use of the word benevolent is spurious at best, as are most elements of this film. James, who was originally cast as a peripheral bartender before impressing so much with his reading that he landed a supporting role, is twice the personality of his white counterpart. If it was me, I would have given the geezer a pair of nun chucks and cast him alongside Michael Dudikoff, perhaps pitched the idea to the Cannon Group. Just saying.
Ultimately, The Exterminator is second-rate trash, 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 from a movie of such spurious sentiments, 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 until his eyes pop. 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.
Kurt Russel modelled his performance as Escape From New York‘s Snake Plissken on Robert Ginty’s John Eastland. I think it’s safe to say he eclipsed it.
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?