Dir. James Glickenhaus
After returning home to the US from fighting in Vietnam, a traumatised soldier attempting to rebuild his life turns vigilante when his best friend is paralysed by a group of thugs.
While it may unfold as a brazenly violent, exploitative and at times trashy revenge fantasy, Glickenhaus’s The Exterminator is also at times a strangely thoughtful commentary on the difficulties of ex-military reintegration, post-war trauma and government corruption. The socio-political subtext about the plight of Vietnam vets and how their own society and justice system failed them on their return home, isn’t just a front for the exploitative violence – the film does make some genuinely stark points – some of which, particularly those about the ordinary working man’s dissatisfaction with greedy, corrupt governments who make us pay for their mistakes – have never been more prevalent. John Eastland (Robert Ginty), like so many other soldiers, fought because they felt they were protecting the ideals of democracy and for the safety of future generations. Upon his return to New York he finds a city overrun by corruption, vice and crime – a society devouring itself through greed and debauchery.
While Glickenhaus’s script never seems to overly condone Eastland’s violent actions, it never really condemns him either. Aside from the overly elaborate methods of death he employs (dropping a gang boss into a mincing machine; tying up a couple of gang members in a basement for rats to chew their faces off) Eastland is never really presented as an unreasonable madman – if anything, he’s presented as a thoughtful intellectual kinda guy (a copy of Sartre’s 'Critique of Dialectical Reason' can be spied on his coffee table) who just wants to get on with living his life in peace. In fact it is actually his humanity and his loyalty to his paralysed friend Michael (Steve James) that eventually gives him away. The film’s closing line “Washington will be pleased”, is unsettlingly sinister, and screams of political corruption and desperation.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though – The Exterminator is a good old fashioned vigilante justice flick with an ‘everyman pushed to the edge’ as its protagonist. The likes of Street Trash and Hobo With A Shotgun would riff on similar themes later on; with their depictions of ordinary decent people neglected and pushed to extremes by the corrupt nature of society - or, more specifically, those who govern society. That Eastland vents his anger and vigilantism on such lowlifes as child pornographers, rapists, paedophiles, pimps and various other underworld denizens adds to the ‘right on’ sense of trashy entertainment the story emits. For a film with such bleak events depicted in it, The Exterminator still has moments of warmth that lend it some heart – especially the burgeoning romance between Detective James Dalton and Dr. Megan Stewart (Christopher George and Samantha Eggar), and Eastland’s friendship with Michael and the support he gives his friend’s family.
From the denim-flaunting, headband-wearing thugs (The Ghetto Ghouls) complete with chains, spiked accessories and bad attitudes, to the sleazy squalid atmosphere of a New York that could only have been filmed in the Eighties – seediness brimming with rat-infested menace – The Exterminator oozes atmosphere. An irresistible Abel Ferraraesque New York City provides the backdrop for the story; all sleazy neon, grimy sidewalks and steamy back alleys, while the film’s opening – a red lit and hellish Vietnam ‘trench’ featuring a gruesome decapitation that still looks pretty effective and disturbing to this day – and explosions galore, is all beautifully rendered in HD.
The Exterminator (cert. 18) will be released on Blu-ray (£24.99) by Arrow Video on 7th November 2011.
Special Features: Introduction to the film by director James Glickenhaus; Fire And Slice: Making The Exterminator - an interview with James Glickenhaus; 42nd Street Then And Now – a tour of New York’s former sleaze circuit with director Frank Henenlotter; audio commentary by Mark Buntzman, producer of The Exterminator and writer-director of The Exterminator II, moderated by Calum Waddell; collectors’ booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by critic David Hayles; reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork; double sided fold out artwork poster; original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; original uncompressed LPCM mono audio.