Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Street Crime on DVD: The Exterminator

For a so-called grindhouse film, it had killer ad copy. It also featured contributions from two very talented but very different Stans. Eventually, it spawned an inferior sequel not involving its original creator that hardly helped its reputation. Decades later, James Glickenhaus’s The Exterminator (trailer here) is ripe for a critical reappraisal with today’s release of the unrated director’s cut in special Blu-Ray combo pack from Synapse Films.

John Eastland will become the Exterminator, the man the ad campaign told us “they pushed too far.” New York’s Ché Guevara loving Ghetto Ghouls gang (as evidenced by the décor of their hideout) did that when they attacked and paralyzed Eastland’s best friend, Michael Jefferson. During the Viet Nam prologue (featuring a beheading rendered by special effects artist Stan Winston, Stan #1), Jefferson saves Eastland from the sadistic Viet Cong, a depiction most definitely not approved by Jane Fonda. Close friends and co-workers, Jefferson was always the outgoing man of action, while Eastland was the more reserved one.

Unlike Paul Kersey in the original Death Wish, Eastland tracks down the specific thugs responsible for the crime (with the brief help of the flame-thrower featured prominently on the posters), extracting some frontier justice. Concerned for the future of Jefferson’s family, Eastland then abducts a mobster from the Old Homestead steak house to extort their financial security. This episode gets a little bloody. Eastland also starts to understand New York needs his extermination services.

Of course, the most (only) talented cop on the force makes it his business to track down the man calling himself the Exterminator. Still, Det. Dalton finds time to put the moves on the smart and attractive ER Dr. Megan Stewart (played by Samantha Eggar, perhaps the cast’s biggest name), even taking her to an outdoor Stan Getz concert (yep, Stan #2, at a time when he was pretty deep into the electric bag). He is not the only government employee interested in stopping the Exterminator. With the election fast approaching, Eastland’s efforts are embarrassing the administration, who promised but failed to deliver law and order (since The Exterminator was originally released in September 1980, this must be the Carter White House). As a result, the CIA is dispatched to eliminate the Exterminator.

Synapse’s cover copy is also quite shrewd, boldly quoting a negative review from Roger Ebert decrying it as a “sick example of the almost unbelievable descent into gory savagery in American movies.” So there, you rabble. Yet, in retrospect, it seems quite tame compared to the sicko torture porn of Eli Roth. Granted, some of Eastland’s exterminations are rather grisly, but the real carnage mostly happens off camera, conveyed to viewers through his grimaces and their shrieks. Like Michael Winner’s original Death Wish, Eastland is also rather angst-ridden, naturally upset by his friend’s misfortune and carrying his own ghosts from the Viet Nam war, and never revels in his work.

Exterminator is also significant for an early appearance from one of the best action actors of the late twentieth century. It is not Robert Ginty, who was literally hired to play Eastland because of his non-descript everyman look. Nor is it Christopher George, who received top billing as Det. Dalton. However, the former U.S. Marine and Rat Patrol actor was a laudable throwback to the patriotic Hollywood of old, who participated in recruiting films and USO tours on behalf of the service.

For action lovers who came of age in the late 1980’s, Steve James was cult superstar, whose presence and attitude made the cheap actioners ground out by Cannon Films great fun. While he began the American Ninja series as Michael Dudikoff’s sidekick, the third installment, Blood Hunt, saw his Curtis Jackson stepping out as the co-lead. The ringer of the series and also the best, James seemed to enjoy cutting through faceless ninja hordes for a living. Just try to not have fun watching it. Yet as the ill-fated Jefferson, James showcases his dramatic chops far more than his martial arts skills. His tragic death at the far too young age of forty-one makes his work in Exterminator even more poignant.

To Glickenhaus’s credit, he saw it right away, casting James as Jefferson even though he had auditioned for a smaller part. Glickenhaus also deserves a bit of a critical reappraisal himself, having helmed the leanly muscular Shakedown, one of the most unfairly overlooked cop thrillers of the late 1980’s. Do not feel badly for him though. He is now a portfolio manager at his family’s investment firm, Glickenhaus & Co. Back in the day, he had a real feel for gritty, grimy way-pre-Giuliani New York, conveying a sense the City on the brink of abject anarchy.

Frankly, the CIA subplot is a bit of a silly distraction, like something out of blaxploitation films. In contrast, the street level story is pretty compelling drama, but a far cry from the fascist incitement suggested by critics at the time. Arguably, there is nearly as much psychological turmoil as there is violent payback. Certainly a touchstone film within the vigilante genre, The Exterminator is recommended to the open-minded but not the faint of heart. Glickenhaus’s cut is now available on Blu-Ray and standard DVD, with commentary from the director.