That’s a title with a ton of exploitation promise, don’t you think? Now imagine being a ten year old movie freak that ingested anything remotely salacious or possibly brain-damaging into his system to increase his cinematic database. A match made in heaven? Probably not in the eyes of those who would shelter such fragile minds from the grotesque and lurid underbelly of commercial film, but a definite boon to the kid looking specifically for the grotesque and lurid. Well folks, the buck pretty much not only stops at The Exterminator (1980), it finds itself aflame as celluloid floats to the ground in messy tribute. The ash of this one spread everywhere.
And I know, it’s not horror; but to a ten year old, exploitation and horror is completely simpatico - violence, nudity, and degradation were not only on the menu, they were pretty much alone on the laminated list. (Fine, comedy too, but you get the idea.) Critics at the time were understandably quite averse to its grime game; Roger Ebert said the film “is a small, unclean exercise in shame.” The first two I can understand, but shame? Only if you let it make you feel that way.
This story may sound a wee bit familiar: we hit the prologue running, highlighting two American soldiers during that hoariest of ‘70s/’80s guilt-ridden film tropes, the Vietnam War. When John Eastland (Robert Ginty – Maniac Killer) is rescued from certain death by fellow soldier Michael Jefferson (Steve James – He Knows You’re Alone), their friendship is forever cemented.
Both gain employment working the docks in New York City when they get back, and settle into some sense of domestic normality. Michael is jumped and paralyzed by a group of street thugs, and John vows revenge. Once John has dispatched the thugs, he finds himself helping the downtrodden wherever and whenever he can. Sometimes he uses a blowtorch, sometimes an industrial meat grinder; the point is he gets the job done. When he goes after a mob boss to shake him down for funds to help the Jefferson family, he not only has the CIA on his tail, but detective James Dalton (Christopher George – Grizzly), who when he isn’t busy wooing Jeffersons’ physician, Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar – The Brood) actually tries to solve the cases of vigilantism. Can John be stopped, or will he survive to keep sweeping the streets of NYC?
The Exterminator was a hit with audiences and four years later we got the sequel, so the above question is answered. (No matter the decade, always leave the fate of characters in the hands of the money men.) So what is it about the film that resonated (and still does) with audiences? I think it comes down to shitty people getting their comeuppance, and nothing more; even by 1980, the War is Hell (especially when using Vietnam, as many filmmakers did) banner was faded, ripped, and needed to be buried. The psychology of The Exterminator wants to be a pained dive into the mind of a veteran, and how PTSD affects his well-being – yet ends up just trotting through a barrage of vengeance, both personal and societal.
But this is exploitation; lip service and crib sheets are all that’s needed to move the story along. John disposes of a lot of really horrible people in ways that act as catharsis for the viewer – ones that see these kinds of films as harmless retribution perhaps, or a brief respite from the horrors of reality. Some may see them as wish fulfillment. Regardless, The Exterminator is set up to get a reaction from viewers, and that it definitely does; writer/director James Glickenhaus (Shakedown) wants you to be on John’s side as he takes out the trash while the police stand idly by. (This is Vigilante Film School 101.) Whether it works or not in gaining sympathy depends on one’s own stance toward authority and its ability to bring forth justice; and judging from the state of ‘80s NYC, confidence was not at an all time high.
So, putting aside the politics ever present at the gooey center of the Vigilante lollipop, we’re left with the craft, and this is miles ahead of Glickenhaus’ previous outing, The Astrologer (1975), an action thriller that offers neither to the viewer. The Exterminator doesn’t have pacing issues, but it is rather episodic in nature, as we follow John from one target to the next; still, unlike its predecessor, it moves. In exploitation, whether on the streets or behind bars, there must be motion – much like a shark, if it stops, it dies.
Glickenhaus gets this, and his set pieces are pretty wild: the opening in Vietnam has a beheading pulled off by Stan Winston that is awesome, the meat grinder is suitably disgusting, an extradition from a pedophile club is beyond disturbing, and firepower is far from at a shortage. The man decided to give the people what they want; little did he know that his film would extend beyond 42nd Street into the suburbs where frustrations are just as common, if not exactly the same.
The Exterminator simply wouldn’t work though without a capable cast to form some semblance of reality; Ginty was always presented as an everyman, and he assays that role here well with dignity and low key intensity. This was certainly the Era of George; from Italian horror (Gates of Hell) to American (Graduation Day) to Spanish (Pieces), he was in every grindhouse and drive-in across the land. He doesn’t have a lot to do here – he should be solving the case instead of wooing an underused Eggar – but he manages to bring his gruff charm wherever he goes.
Glickenhaus’ most fondly remembered film is probably Shakedown (’88), where Sam Elliott and Peter Weller team up to take down a whole slew of bad guys. And it is, without doubt, a gooder. But for me, The Exterminator was an early in to exploitation without having to cautiously stroll through 42nd Street; I’ll leave the blurry heroics to John Eastland, thank you very much.
The Exterminator is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.Next: Class of 1980: How MOTEL HELL Reawakened My Love of Horror