There are some video covers that hold such an allure for film fans of a certain age that, even now, they’re capable of triggering a certain giddy excitement in those of us who can recall feverishly perusing the empty box on the shelves of early 80s video rental stores. Sometimes these covers were titillating (The Perils Of Gwendoline), horrifying (The Driller Killer), or intriguing (Alien), and sometimes they spoke promises of such unmitigated violence and debauchery that you were sold from the moment you laid eyes on them.
One such release was The Exterminator, a video cover that featured a muscular, leather clad, motorcycle helmeted avenger brandishing a flamethrower. Looking at it now, it could only really excite an S&M enthusiast with a fondness for Top Gear, but back in the day, it epitomised all that was thrilling, dangerous and forbidden about the home video explosion.
Watching it at home when the folks were in bed, terrified that the clunking mechanics of the top loading VHS recorder would disturb the household from its slumber, it was a film that, at the time, more than delivered on the violence front, even though that black clad avenger bore little relation to the movie’s central protagonist. Machetes were brandished, bad guys were fed into industrial meat grinders and sexual deviants were torched and executed in the festering dens of iniquity in which they indulged their vile, criminal practices. In short, it had everything a discriminating teenage boy could demand of a video that he wasn’t supposed to see. So whatever rating I’ve ended up giving this, my 14-year old self would probably insist on adding an extra star at the very least.
However, watching it now, it’s easy to see the deficiencies that existed in a film from a director (James Glickenhaus) who maintains that he was attempting to examine the effects of the Vietnam War on the psyche of a man no longer able to discern where the boundaries of fighting that war lay. The story of John Eastland (Robert Ginty) a Vietnam veteran whose best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is attacked and paralysed by local thugs, it follows Eastland as he takes to the streets as a vigilante calling himself the Exterminator; first to seek revenge on those who attacked his friend, and then to mete out justice to any criminals foolish or unfortunate enough to cross his path.
There are nods to the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder playing a part in Eastland’s actions, as well as cursory allusions to the political fallout generated by having such a character on the streets, but essentially, it’s a fairly simple film: bad guys do something bad, bad guys die screaming in agony (albeit off-screen for the most part).
The performances range from competent to bad, and the characters are mostly sketches providing no real depth, while the main story follows a path that throws up little in the way of intrigue or surprises. There is a subplot involving a romance between a female doctor (Samantha Eggar) and a Detective (Christopher George) who is attempting to bring The Exterminator to justice, but you should pay it little heed. It exists purely to give the relatively well known Eggar something to do, while contriving a reason for the policeman to be in a hospital at the same time as Eastland during a crucial moment. It’s a ham-fisted coincidence designed to bring about the break in the case the police need, and ensure that the film can safely proceed to its concluding face-off.
So, the acting is variable, the plot is no great shakes, and it’s nowhere near as violent as I recalled, none of which is to say that I can find a reason to be any less fond of this film than I was 26 years ago.
Although thematically similar to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (both films feature a Vietnam veteran meting out vigilante justice on the streets of New York while trying to save a prostitute from a life of abuse), The Exterminator, despite its $2million budget, is made firmly in the exploitation tradition. A narrative that is driven predominately by the need for revenge, with set piece sequences featuring depictions of extreme violence and two-dimensional villains who perpetrate some very vile acts indeed, its main accomplishments are its capacity to thrill, shock or entertain, the retribution administered to the bad guys in particular proving amusingly (and gruesomely) cathartic.
But the real appeal of this film for me now lies in two aspects of its production that would have totally passed me by on first viewing. The first is its depiction of New York itself; the city’s grubbier aspects during this period providing a huge part of the film’s allure (something that distributors Arrow clearly recognise, as they have included a ‘then and now’ stroll along 42nd Street as part of the extras package).
There are few cities in cinema as recognisable as New York, particularly the 70s version of seedy no-go back streets, litter strewn sidewalks and porno theatre doorways populated with brooding low-lifes every 10 yards. It’s a world familiar from such films as The French Connection (1971), Death Wish (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), The Wanderers (1979), The Warriors (1979), Driller Killer (1979), Maniac (1980) and Basket Case (1982); instantly recognisable and a pleasure to see again here.
This is a New York that, shot artfully through the lens of a film camera and from a safe distance of over 30 years and almost 3,500 miles, it is strangely easy to romanticise; a seedy, vicarious thrill that is as integral to the experience of enjoying the movies in which it appears as is the Paris of love, magic and romance depicted in Gigi, Funny Face or Amelie.
In The Exterminator, we visit all the backdrops one might expect, including the gaudy neon-lit exteriors where hookers tout for trade, a scummy hotel where wholesale slaughter is administered to paedophile sex traffickers, a barren and dangerous looking park in which an old lady is mugged, and an abandoned and desolate dock-side that provides the scenario for a climactic showdown in the early hours. It’s the sort of action that just wouldn’t come to life in the same way if set in any other city, New York and exploitation cinema going together like Pam Grier and the line “The baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town!”
The film’s other main strength is its lead, Robert Ginty. He’s not the greatest or most charismatic actor you’ve ever seen, but his essential ordinariness really works within the confines of a story like this. If made today, The Exterminator would likely be a glossy vehicle for someone like Liam Neeson or Jason Statham, men who look like movie stars and seem about as vulnerable as genitals in a cast iron codpiece at a one-legged ball-kicking contest.
Ginty, however, looks like someone you might work with or live next door to, exactly the sort of fellow who, with a sufficiently traumatic past in the arena of war, is likely to snap one day and wreak havoc on those he feels deserve it. Ginty’s is a performance that helps to ground the movie in some sort of reality, reigning things in just when the potential for things to get very ridiculous indeed seems possible.
It should also be noted that the production values are actually quite impressive in places, the film’s budget being put to particularly good use in the explosive Vietnam prologue. Also, one thing that can be said of Glickenhaus is that he knows how to draw out the aesthetics of a mob boss being fed into a mincer, offsetting the grisly action in the foreground against a silhouette of the action on the warehouse wall in the background.
There are, however, times when the experience proves less than immersive (a car chase in particular, when a teenage hoodlum driving one vehicle suddenly transforms into a middle-aged stuntman in an ill fitting wig), and the script was never going to make any viewer question the moral issues of a society that asked men to die for it but didn’t know what to do with them when they didn’t.
Yes, it’s rough round the edges, some of the acting fails to convince, and it may not appeal to those who are unfamiliar with the exploitation tradition from which it emerged, but somehow this is a film that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It will never be considered a great movie, but it contains sufficient spectacle, technical flair and good old-fashioned carnage to deserve its cult status. But ultimately, it will appeal primarily to video nostalgists with a penchant for an era when all you really wanted to know about a film was what the picture on the box looked like.
I was pleasantly surprised at how good the film looked, the Arrow Blu-ray featuring a rather impressive transfer that only really suffers from visible grain in some of the night time scenes. The sound is occasionally muffled at times, but for the most part is clear and lacking in extraneous noise.
Arrow has not been without its critics, particularly when releasing films in the wrong aspect ratio (yes, I’m looking at you, Bird With The Crystal Plumage) but they’ve done a decent enough job with this release. Besides the film looking about as good as anyone had any right to hope it would, the extras and commentary are entertaining and enlightening. 42nd Street Then And Now – a tour of New York’s former sleaze circuit (15 mins), in which the film director Frank Henenlotter laments the changes which have occurred in the area, goes a long way to explaining the production design that informed some of his cult classics such as the Basket Case trilogy and Frankenhooker, while also highlighting the rich exploitation, horror and porno heritage of the street’s former theatres which have since been sacrificed in the name of tourism and progress. It also features footage of a man hammering a five-inch nail up his nose if that’s your ‘bag’.
There’s also a very brief introduction to the film from director James Glickenhaus, along with a more substantial interview running to 20 minutes, in which he discusses the movie’s origins, influences and enduring appeal. Finally, the commentary with producer Mark Buntzen, moderated by film critic and exploitation authority Calum Waddell, is packed with anecdotes about the making of the film, the rapport between the two proving consistently engaging throughout a conversation that doesn’t flag for a second.