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.
As previously noted, I found the 2003 remake of the Tobe Hooper classic to be a solid horror film on its own merits. It was a successful film, but due to how it left Leatherface, a sequel was less than likely. Instead, the filmmakers chose to exploit an even worse trend in films – a prequel. Generally, it wouldn’t make much difference due to the formulaic slasher style, but intending it to be a sort of origin story for Leatherface was an idea that should’ve been left alone. I must warn you that this review will have some spoilers in it. There are certain issues I will raise that cannot be explored without them. While I will try not to be detailed in my spoilers, they do directly impact the fact of who dies and who survives.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning takes place in 1969 – four years before the events of the previous film. Dean (Taylor Handley) has been drafted into the United States Army in the midst of the Viet Nam War. His brother, Eric (Matthew Bomer), has already had a tour in ‘Nam, and is going back to re-enlist. Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) very much loves Eric, and doesn’t want him to go. Unfortunately, he’s too gung-ho for the war and being a patriot to choose love over volunteering for the war. What Eric doesn’t know is that Dean intends to dodge the draft by hopping the Mexico border with his girlfriend Bailey (Diora Baird). The group of four must travel cross-state in Texas for the brothers to join the army. Meanwhile, changes are occurring in the Hewitt household. With the closing of the slaughterhouse, the family is all that’s left of this town. Charles Hewitt (R. Lee Ermy) assumes the role of town sheriff, the family casually embraces cannibalism, and Thomas Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski) begins his vicious killing streak. Inevitably, these two stories converge, and total carnage and death ensues. I can’t say you’ll “witness the birth of fear,” but you will be a witness to a lot of visceral violence.
My first main gripe with this film is that the focus is on the wrong character, despite the great actor portraying him. Leatherface is the icon of the franchise, and six films have been produced and released with him as that icon. Whether you call him Bubba Sawyer or Thomas Hewitt doesn’t make a huge difference. Either way, he’s still a cannibalistic homicidal maniac who wears human flesh as a mask, and kills people with a chain-saw in Texas. So, my point is, when it comes time to tell of his origins, to explain to us why he is who he is, and why he does what he does, how come the focus of the film is diverted away from him? Why is he treated as the secondary villain throughout the film when he is the icon of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise? He’s on all the posters, all the promotional materials, and has always been treated as the main attraction in the films. In this film, R. Lee Ermey is given the reigns as Charles Hewitt / Sheriff Hoyt. He has the brunt of the spotlight, and has more of his character explored than Leatherface. As the matriarch of the Hewitt family, it is only natural he’s in a leadership role, but Leatherface is barely in this film. Only when someone is to be brutally murdered, is he brought into frame. We really learn next to nothing more about Leatherface than was explained in the 2003 remake. In fact, far more of Leatherface’s origins were stated in that film than this supposed origins story. This alone makes the idea of a prequel a wasted opportunity. If you’re not going to explore the back story and origins of the franchise’s one and only constant star, then why bother doing a prequel? The film sets itself up like it is making Leatherface the focus of the story, but once Ermey comes on screen, he’s given the spotlight. Now, there’s a difference between stealing the spotlight, and being given it. One occurs out of pure happenstance by an actor’s outstanding performance. The other is fully planned by the filmmakers. The filmmakers chose to put focus on Hoyt instead of Leatherface, and that honestly annoys me. What further annoys me is that the brunt of the back story in this film is glossed over in the main title sequence! A montage of Thomas Hewitt at different ages and some newspaper headlines is the meat of the “beginnings.”
My second gripe is that the ending is a victim of the film’s own trappings. This is a prequel, and we’ve already seen the first film which is set four years after this one. So, we already know who is not going to die in this film. When the biker Holden (Lee Tergesen) has Hoyt at gunpoint, you want to get excited that the tables have turned, and this family may now get their deadly due. Of course, that’s short lived since we already know that Hoyt isn’t going to die because he’s alive (and in one piece) four years later, as seen in the 2003 remake. Thus, there’s no tension, hope, or suspense that the scene is obviously intent on provoking from an audience. And the oh-so-clever way out of this is when Holden does pull the trigger, the gun doesn’t fire, and thus, leaving him defenseless to the subsequent attack upon him. This happens despite two facts: one being that he checked the gun chamber earlier on, and more importantly, he just successfully fired the gun at another of the Hewitt clan no more than a minute ago. The gun works one minute, and then, doesn’t the next. This is the first of two displays of stunted logic by the filmmakers. The second comes from the ending – which is worse because you quickly realize that every potential victim will die. Leatherface magically appears in the backseat of this getaway car stolen by our heroine, despite the fact that he was still trailing behind her when she got in the car. Then, he also is able to maneuver that big ass chainsaw around in the back seat. So, Leatherface must’ve contacted the starship Enterprise, had Scotty beam him into the backseat, and used a retractable chainsaw to kill the girl. Of course, he still has to walk back home. The film ends without a resolution, and thus, feels empty. Even the brief narrated statements by John Larroquette are no real help. This is honestly the flattest ending to a horror film I can recall seeing.
While this film is as intense, brutal, and grueling as everyone has been saying, it feels much less developed than the 2003 remake. I found the young protagonist leads to be less endearing and sympathetic than those in Marcus Nispel’s film. This foursome, more or less, felt like your standard slasher film cannon fodder with only some decent level of character development behind them. I didn’t particularly feel for them because they lacked any degree of true emotional depth. The brutality of their deaths, despite the great impact of their ferocity, did not draw any further empathy from me. The less-than-engaging actors aren’t completely to blame for this because the screenplay doesn’t give them any real personalities to make their characters worth much of a damn – especially the girls. They all seem too cliché and hollow. There’s no emotional roller-coaster ride that these characters are subjected to, or even any straight out mindfuck material to screw with their sanity. You don’t see any of them descend into hysterics or some pit of despair. Nobody seems genuinely traumatized by the insanity and carnage they bare witness to. Jordanna Brewster doesn’t come remotely close to what Jessica Biel was so rich with back in 2003. Biel was exceptionally likeable, but also had a tomboy toughness to her, a touch of grittiness, and a real traumatic out-pouring of emotion. I want to see tears and uncontrollable sobbing when a girl sees one of her best friends or boyfriend get savagely murdered right in front of her. Brewster just doesn’t display the acting chops to pull off that level of overly intense emotional distress. Even the tougher heroines of the franchise have shown a wider range of emotions than Brewster shows any hint of here. Only Holden, the rebel biker, did I actually feel for, but that’s only because I have a real big fondness for Lee Tergesen. He’s always done very exceptional acting, and it’s always an extra special treat when I see Tergesen on screen.
The final gripe is the audacity of these filmmakers to try to recreate the infamous “dinner scene” from Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre film. The version of this scene in this film is about as disturbing as your picnic in the park getting rained on. A quickly slashed throat is as far as it goes to disturb you. This family just doesn’t display enough erratic or demented physical behavior to tap into the raw, psychotic mania Hooper originally captured. Director Jonathan Liebesman’s version is totally forgettable and dismissible. Leatherface isn’t even present until the very end. It’s as pussified as can be imagined without becoming totally laughable. This just goes to show that you cannot recreate a classic, especially when you’re barely trying, and at least Marcus Nispel had the foresight not to attempt to recreate this scene in his film.
Now, after this massive tangent of gripes and negativity, you inevitably ask if there’s anything good here. Well, there is some that goes a long way. The acting from the returning cast remains solid as a rock, and the cinematography is quite good except when the end chase sequence turns into The Blair Witch Project with the shaky-cam bullshit. When will filmmakers learn that this style of shooting is nothing but annoying, disorienting, and detracting to the effectiveness of a scene? Beyond that, nothing in the camera work really stood out for me – good or bad, and honestly, didn’t appear noticeably any grittier to me than the 2003 remake. It’s not as glossy in its lighting, but I personally wouldn’t state much more difference than that. The look of the film is nearly identical to Marcus Nispel’s installment down to the faded, dry color scheme. I’m really indifferent towards the musical score. It doesn’t enhance the film much, but certainly doesn’t damage it. It’s just one of those scores that’s just there. On the editing side, the film cuts away, and ultimately holds back, when the most graphic imagery appears. Whether this was an MPAA rating requirement, or the director’s prerogative is uncertain. For whatever reason, I’m tempted to believe the latter especially after seeing what made the R-rated cut of The Hills Have Eyes earlier that same year, but one of the producers said that seventeen scenes had to be cut down to obtain an R rating. An unrated cut was released on DVD, but the single theatrical viewing was enough for me.
The violence here is indeed more unrelenting and brutal than in the 2003 remake. Every act of violence is so smash mouth that it will have you recoiling and cringing. Flesh is slashed and shredded, bones are crushed, skulls battered, and blood is spattered. It’s intense and tough to take. The first kill, which is by sledgehammer, is so visceral and dead-on realistic that you may suffer whiplash from the impacts. The first chainsaw kill is dramatic, and the sound of it is gut-wrenching. Although, the focus is almost completely on the violence instead of the aftermath. Seeing the end result of all this carnage usually goes a long way to building up the fear and emotional distress of our protagonists. This film does indeed lack tension and suspense. It’s just about making the most violent and barbarous film possible. You can get the very same thing in most Quentin Tarantino films. When I watch a horror film, I want tension and suspense racked up as far as possible, or at least have it delve into pure madness. Director Jonathan Liebesman really makes no attempt at this. He just wants violence upon violence. He’s about the shock and impact which are merely momentary whereas the emotional roller-coaster that the build up and aftermath offer are long-lasting. Still, the savagery of the film does make an impact that you won’t soon forget, but doesn’t do anything to keep you on the edge of your seat. This film is purely about sadism, not terror. It’s a blunt object lacking character or subtlety instead of the finely-crafted piece of terror, tension, and suspense that I was hoping for. Furthermore, despite all this barbarism, this film lacks the whirlwind of insanity that has always been the high marks in these films.
Also, what The Beginning lacks that the 2003 remake had is bravado and an animalistic rage for Leatherface. In Marcus Nispel’s film, Leatherface was like a tank barreling down on his prey, and smashing through whatever got in his way. Here, he barely has any screen presence at all since Ermey’s given all the damn screentime. There was no pay-off for all this hiding Leatherface in shadows and such. By the end, he has less screentime here than Jason Voorhees in Jason Goes To Hell, something fans have always been quite vocal over in that film. In 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface was a dominant physical presence, and that is sorely lacking here. And where’s the bravado? I was actually surprised and impressed by the 2003 remake because it was a real, straight up horror film that was very well-rounded. I won’t say at all that it measures up on the same levels to Hooper’s classic, but I would hardly say it was a disgrace. That film dared to be what exceptionally few horror films were actually trying to do at the time – be a real horror film. It wanted to scare you, to make you feel the horror, and disturb you to some degree. This prequel doesn’t even try to be that much beyond upping the bar for the intensity of the violence, but still doesn’t kick my ass. Nispel’s film also had a certain consistent adrenaline rush to it, but this prequel lacks even that. No momentum is ever built up.
I will indeed give this film high marks for its guts to not hold back on the violence and savagery, but I honestly feel it falls short in every other aspect. There’s so much that seems carbon-copied from the previous film that it becomes difficult to focus on anything remotely original here. Even the end chase sequence swings through the slaughterhouse, albeit only briefly. In fact, the entire end chase is very brief, sacrificing (again) any attempt at building tension or a sense of imminent peril. The screenplay wastes every opportunity to make Leatherface the focus of the movie, and to mainly explore his evolution from a deformed outcast child to a cannibalistic, psychotic, and vicious butcher, which I thought was the entire point of this prequel. The director foregoes any attempt at creating tension, suspense, or even a passing sense of insanity in exchange for pure blunt brutality. It’s just kill, kill, kill to no end. Just an excuse for a body count. The characters that we should have immense sympathy for really just fell flat for me. I didn’t care if they lived or died. There wasn’t nearly enough emotional depth or personality to them to forge any connection for me. The girls are just there to scream and offer some eye candy. I will also take issue with anyone who freely throws around the statement that this film is terrifying. Unless a movie makes you scream out in terror, has you pissing your pants, or leaves you completely paralyzed with fear in your theatre seat, don’t dare say that this or any other film is terrifying.
Anyway, I have to ultimately say that this film is much less developed than the 2003 remake, but is indeed more intense where the violence is concerned. I don’t see it as a good enough trade-off. Reference Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake to see how a film of this kind is done right. That, my fellow horror fans, was the true best horror film of 2006. It had all the fear, madness, empathy for characters, suspense, gore, and brutality that one looks for in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film. No sequel, prequel, rip-off, or remake has yet to do justice to Tobe Hooper’s original, unrelenting, and raw film from 1974. This film is rather lifeless and lacks any genuine human element to connect with – something essential to any great horror film. Ultimately, I cannot recommend The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning all that much. If you just want pure brutality with little else to scare or entertain, this is likely for you, but it’s surely not one for me.