I’m not sure how many younger film fans will empathize with this, but many of us in the VHS Generation have fond memories of browsing our local video stores at a prepubescent age, staring at the gaudy covers for exploitative schlock that our parents would never let us rent in a million years. Then of course we grew up and DVD had so thoroughly flourished that the more mysterious curios were now impossible to find, and rarely released at all in the new medium. Times have changed, finally, and thanks to Synapse Films I can finally watch one of those lost B-Movies that for so long seemed to elude me. The time has come, at last, to watch The Exterminator. And it’s on Blu-Ray too, so… double trouble. I’ll be back in a moment after I watch the film.
Naturally, I’ve been let down a bit.
The Exterminator is an almost impossibly fast-paced vigilante thriller in the vein of Death Wish and, more recently, Hobo with a Shotgun. Robert Ginty, known to most MST3K fans as “That Paperchase Guy,” stars as John Eastland, a Vietnam vet who turns renegade after the man who saved his life in the war, American Ninja’s Steve James, is brutalized by a local New York gang. Eastland uses his military training to take the fight back to the streets and begins killing crime bosses and underlings alike in a series of memorably violent and tasteless action and torture sequences long after he’s brought the original perpetrators to “justice,” taking the name “The Exterminator” and attracting unwanted attention from the CIA and the local authorities, in the form of Chisum’s Christopher George.
Writer/director James Glickhenhaus (McBain) doesn’t want you to get bored while watching The Exterminator, leading to a rushed but jam-packed narrative that bypasses old-fashioned Hollywood conventions like “plotting.” After Eastland’s friend is shown paralyzed, Glickenhaus skips the part of the story in which his hero actually decides to become a vigilante and literally cuts to him torturing his first victim with a flamethrower. Steve James’ attackers are all dead by the end of the first act, forcing the film to repeatedly introduce new bad guys for Eastland to dispatch with gruesome aplomb, including a Sunday Funnies-obsessed gangster whom he stuffs in a meat grinder and the denizons of a particularly illegal and disgusting brothel whom he sets on fire. Meanwhile, Christopher George seems to ignore the “A” story completely because he’s too busy romancing The Brood’s Samantha Eggar. The two plots finally collide, but when they do it’s such a massive coincidence that it seems to prove that The Exterminator was made to titillate rather than actually work as a cohesive story.
As I stated on this week’s B-Movies Podcast, this movie may not be the goriest film of its ilk but in many ways it feels like the most violent. The victims of The Exterminator, Eastland’s and everyone else’s, are all portrayed in the throws of utter fear and disbelief at their plight: an aspect of the vigilante cycle that most films gloss over in an attempt to make the hero more heroic, and the film as whole more palatable. As a result, The Exterminator feels more f***ed up than most, but unfortunately it has too little on its mind thematically to make the most of it. The spectacular makeup effects work, including one of the most realistic (and swiftly decapitated) dummies I’ve ever seen, is worth lauding, and includes work by none other special effects luminary Stan Winston.
Grindhouse fans, gorehounds and 80’s action aficionados will be elated by Synapse’s Blu-Ray set, which also includes a DVD of the film. The movie has been cleaned up beautifully, which may almost be to its detriment since the deteriorated VHS or second-run theater look probably contributed to The Exterminator’s seedy tone. The highly informative commentary track by Glickenhaus, moderated by Temple of Shock’s Chris Poggiali, is the only special feature, but it’s also the only special feature we need. It covers so many bases at such a pleasing clip that it deserves special commendation.
If I’d seen The Exterminator when I’d originally wanted to it would probably have traumatized me. And confused me from a narrative perspective. I suspect it’s that second part that would have had a greater negative impact on my development at an early age. As an adult I can watch this fast-moving, memorable vigilante thriller with enough detachment that I can appreciate its bizarre, ultra-violent charms and write the bizarre plotting off as the work of a director with a few too many ideas and not a single Syd Field book credited to his library card. The end result is captivating but probably more peculiar than originally intended.
CRAVEONLINE REVIEW (Film): 7/10
CRAVEONLINE REVIEW (Blu-Ray): 9/10