The Exterminator (1980)
In 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator. I have some mixed statements to make about this film. It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great. A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.
Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.
What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role. He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build. He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be. If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio. Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role. He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with. Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role. His performance compelled my interest in the movie.
The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed. This is the film’s energy and weight. Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting. These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired. The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder. It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion. Eastland is calculating and intelligent. He’s not being controlled by passions. He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked. This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn. You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals. When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.
The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts. Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop. His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset. He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention. I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.
In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit. There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly. Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld. This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it. This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue. I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.
The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made. Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk. I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie. The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity. Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention. These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.
For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on. Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible. There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack. The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else. Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower. Then, he exacts his revenge. The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator. Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him. Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family. Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is. It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.
Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions. This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another. So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another. This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments. Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities. Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next. For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog. The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved. Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on. Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital. It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me. Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged. He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part. I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.
The film is generally competently shot. The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on. Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting. As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees. First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland. It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me. It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene. The rest of the film has no such problems.
However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up. It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch. There’s extraneous footage all over this movie. One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again. I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was. Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired. In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate. This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet. Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to. Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes. If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.
My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending. The climax itself is quite good. There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland. There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end. It’s very well plotted. The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else. It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns. None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot. It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice. There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.
Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together. Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact. He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so. The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction. In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance. Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow. Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve. This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance. I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it. The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.