The Return of The Exterminator

Just uploaded are reviews for James Glickenhaus’ vigilante Exterminator diptych, although really, it’s best to forget the second film because it barely lives up to the ferocity of the first.

The Exterminator was Glickenhaus’ breakthrough film in many ways: costing a not-too-cheap $2 million, the film earned a healthy profit and established the director as another new independent force, which he slowly parlayed in subsequent action films, and the partnership shingle Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment before retiring from moviemaking in 1994.

It’s easy to see why the film is highly regarded by connoisseurs of violent, sleazy action dramas and reviled by others for its vulgarity and sadism. In the commentary track that accompanies Synapse Films’ shiny new Blu-ray +DVD combo, Glickenhaus explains he wanted to make a film about the ugliness of violence, and it’s a valid personal statement about how rotten the world can be towards the unfortunate and innocents in society, but it is the ultimate vigilante film, packed with shocks and action and nudity to ensure the film still functions as a viable commercial product.

Glickenhaus wasn’t a purely exploitive filmmaker because there is an undercurrent of sincerity running through the film, and one suspects his background in non-fiction films was responsible for the docu-drama style of Exterminator.

As a kid, I remember seeing movies shot in New York City and thinking at the time it was the dirties, ugliest place on Earth: large swathes of abandoned apartment complexes, graffiti-plastered subways, ruined cars, porn shops galore, and crime and rodents at every corner. Even if the city’s problems were pronounced circa 1980, it’s obvious filmmakers exploited the grotesque to create their vision of an urban Hell, and Glickenhaus certainly covered a lot of ground, but there’s an affection for lesser grubbiness, and more benign urban areas.

The film’s best visual moments involve working class environs that no longer exist – a food packaging and distribution centre being a highlight – as well as more generic areas characters travel through. Scenes of Detective Dalton (Christopher George, in one of his last major films) working at the precinct, popping into a local hospital to meet girlfriend Dr. Stewart (Samantha Eggar), and both heading out for a live concert at night (with Stan Getz!) feel natural, and it’s these little moments – generally short scenes – that really balance out the film’s sometimes insanely brutal tone.

If one lives a life with crazy hours, you have to make time for leisure and social whenever it’s available, and it’s the normalcy of Dalton’s days that counterpoint the ugly world John Eastland (Robert Ginty) chooses to seek out and avenge the oppressed, if you will. Eastland didn’t have to keep killing after he avenged his friend, but he did, and that decision is qualified in the script through small dialogue exchanges where Eastland is aware he’s changing into something that’s unnerving, but feels also purposeful.

It’s a small character detail most critics wouldn’t see because there are some epic sleaze moments in Exterminator that have ensured it lives up to its nasty reputation, but the film shouldn’t be discounted as exploitive rubbish. It’s far less controversial than that other personal director statement on a social horror – Meir Zarchi’s rape drama I Spit on Your Grave (1978) – but the two filmmakers share a need to put all their disgust into a dramatic structure; one’s a commercial action film, and the other is more of a thing that’s hard to quantify, even in 2011.

I’ve uploaded reviews of The Exterminator [M] (Synapse), and Exterminator 2 [M] (1984) which has yet to appear on DVD (and… maybe… shouldn’t).

Coming next: brief bits on the current Henri-Georges Clouzot retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and soundtrack reviews.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )


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