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James Glickenhaus's Vigilante Classic Survives its Dark and Controversial Past
on 23 April 2014
Arrow’s commitment to releasing finely polished versions of cult greats appears to be beyond question. I recently viewed their deluxe Blu Ray release of the 1980 grindhouse favourite The Exterminator. I have some vivid memories of The Exterminator, a film that practically sucked me from the high street and into the lobby of my local cinema some 34 years ago. What a poster, an unidentifiable urban soldier wearing a black biker helmet and using a flame thrower as his weapon of choice! Yep, it was an image that was always going to get me to the box office for my ticket and of course, the latest copy of Film Review magazine. The Exterminator was quite an extraordinary film; lame of course by today’s standards – perhaps, but in 1980 is was really something rather wild.
Director James Glickenhaus wastes little time in his narrative style, a huge hill top explosion sees a soldier flying through the air. We are undoubtedly in the middle of a war zone – the Vietnam War. The next cut reveals we are in an enemy camp, and an interrogation of 3 bound U.S. soldiers. Two of the captive soldiers, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and Michael Jefferson (Steve James) witness the slow decapitation of their fellow marine. Both Eastland and Jefferson manage to escape before they are killed. They manage to reach a helicopter and escape. We dissolve into a night helicopter shot of New York – and the opening credits roll. It’s an amazing pre-credit sequence that manages to pull you straight into the action and you’re hooked. It is soon established that both men have simply escaped one hell hole to arrive back home to another. Working together in the gritty city of New York, Eastland learns that his buddy Jefferson has been the victim of a gang attack which has left him paralysed. Unhappy with the police and the slow progress in apprehending the attackers, Eastland sets out to avenge his friend and track down the gang in a one-man revenge vendetta.
The Exterminator turned up the heat considerably and set the bar for an altogether new standard of ‘death wish’ type vigilante thriller. James Glickenhaus presented us with a genuine urban ugliness – the likes of which we had never witnessed before. While it was not considered a ‘big budget’ movie – in the general sense of the words, you can certainly see where the money shots are. The incredibly real throat cutting and decapitation sequence still stands out, even by today’s standards – it remains a brilliantly created special effect by the legendary Stan Winston. Yet there is nothing overly stylised here – the action, the atmosphere and above all, the revenge killings – arguably border on bad taste. However, Ginty’s portrayal of a troubled survivor – an anti-hero of circumstance rather than choice, never fails to keep the audience firmly on his side. Whilst the moralistic side of your conscience will no doubt be screaming out legitimate concerns, Ginty’s ‘everyman’ appeal will most certainly still have you rooting for him by the time of the final reel.
The Exterminator is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and whilst clean, it thankfully retains its grindhouse veneer, and somewhat pivotal to its look. The Audio too is good and clear, there has been no fancy attempt to create anything beyond a DTS 2.0 mix (the original film was shot in Dolby Stereo). The film is presented as ‘totally uncut’, and to be honest, I couldn’t remember if the version I originally saw was ever shaved by a few frames here or there – it’s been a while since I viewed my DVD, and certainly a lot longer since I saw it at my beloved ABC cinema! Extras include an audio commentary with producer Mark Buntzman and moderated by Calum Waddell. Whilst the commentary has some informative moments, it can feel a little uncomfortable at times, Waddell seems a little too star struck (and is obviously a fan) - and rather awkwardly, neither one of them seems to know how to wrap the commentary up... There is an introduction to the film by director James Glickenhaus – but be warned, it must be all of 20 seconds long. Glickenhaus offers a great deal more during Fire and Slice: Making The Exterminator – which is based largely on Glickenhaus interviews, and very interesting it is too. There is also a loosely related short – 42nd Street Then and Now: A tour of New York’s former sleaze circuit from director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker). The packaging is very impressive, with a reversible sleeve containing both the original and newly commissioned artwork by Tom Hodge. There is also a nice collector’s booklet containing generous notes and new writing by film critic David Hayles. It is such a shame that no original trailers appear on the disc. At least two versions exist on YouTube, one with a music and effects track, the other with a more conventional voiceover... But it always disappoints me when a trailer fails to appear – for me they were an essential element of the whole cinema going experience and completely reflective of the time. But hey, a few gripes aside – this Blu Ray from Arrow films is the best that The Exterminator has ever looked. Existing fans of the film shouldn't have to think too hard about acquiring it on Blu Ray – it’s really a no brainer. For fans who are perhaps new to the genre, it is also required viewing – as it is simply one of the best examples of its kind. Not only does it capture the genuine depravity of New York’s past (arguably seen here at its worse), but offers the viewer a unique bitter-sweet taste and a somewhat nauseating social realism. Darren Allison