Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Exterminator (1980): or, The Punishment Dude

A couple of years ago on this very site, I reviewed a movie from 1984 called The Executioner, Part II, a highly entertaining Rambo/Punisher mash-up whose enthusiasm and energy cannot be denied, even in the face of suspect acting and slapdash production values. I mentioned then that despite its title, that flick was not in fact a sequel to anything; The Executioner, Part I, sadly, does not exist. Rather, the savvy producers and advertising staff hoped to piggyback on the presumed popularity of another, unrelated film: the 1980 vigilante thriller The Exterminator. Well, it's taken me a couple of trips around the sun to get there, but I've finally managed to lay eyes on James Glickenhaus's First Blood wannabe, and can now make an educated comparison between it and its lower-rent, higher batshit-quotient companion piece.

Good news, parishioners: The Exterminator stacks up pretty well. Better made and higher-budgeted than its non-sequel, the elder cinematographic statesflick not only gives us a look at the foundations upon which were built the wild and weird antics of James Bryan's later effort, but also contains enough of its own gleeful griminess and bizarre set-pieces to keep fans of 80s action grinning almost throughout.

We open on a craggy, moonlit peak that needs only a little snow and a corona of stars to perfectly emulate the Paramount Studios logo. But before we can fully appreciate the tranquility and natural beauty of this shot, Glickenhaus lets slip the Dogs of War, treating us to a gigantic fireball that rockets a hapless US serviceman at least thirty feet above the summit! Which can only mean one of two things: either part of the Vietnam war was waged atop active volcanoes, or else the US Army was testing a top secret human cannonball program that didn't quite work out, for reasons that were perhaps in retrospect quite foreseeable.

Early trials of the C4 Plumber's Helper™ were not a complete success.

Luckily the earth surrounding the crag is soft with jungly moisture and the blood of innocents, so our flying grunt, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) is only stunned and slightly singed by his surprise solo flight. Unluckily, the jungle is also lousy with Viet Cong, which leads to the quick capture of John, his unit-mate and best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve "Don't Call Me Meshach" James), and at least one expendable extra.

At the POW camp, the VC string John and the extra up between bamboo stakes and start grilling them for information. When John doesn't cooperate, the head baddy demonstrates the power of his Vorpal Machete of Partial Beheading (+3, THAC0 -2) on his ill-fated and unnamed cohort. However, in all the excitement the camp guards somehow neglected to ensure that Michael was similarly secured, keeping him tied only with rough twine around his wrists and trusting he won't garrote the living fuck out of his watcher at the first opportunity--a tactical error, as it turns out. Quickly securing an AK-47, Jefferson lays waste to the enemy and frees his partner, then sends up a flare for a well-timed helicopter rescue.


Next we get a credit sequence filled with beautifully shot aerial views of New York City, together with a plaintive, pop-country soldiering song that couldn't contrast more with the steamy, fiery carnage of the opening scene. (Which was, it has to be said, extremely fiery. I shouldn't be surprised if the pyro alone cost more than the entire production budget of Executioner Part II.) Back in the USA, John and Michael are working in the loading docks at White Fairy Inc., a refrigerated shipping firm that moves everything from beer to slabs of meat. Mike is adjusting well to civilian life, making a favorable impression on his bosses and getting the raise needed to support his beautiful wife and two precociously adorable kids. Meanwhile, John is sullen but high-functioning, clinging to his friendship with Michael, the man to whom he owes his life. So guess what happens next?

If you guessed "gang-related tragedy for the family man," give yourself a hug.

Working in the back loading bays, John happens to notice a group of young thugs helping themselves to cases of unguarded beer. These aren't just any thugs, though--they're members of "The Ghetto Ghouls," the most fearsome street gang this side of the Jets and Sharks. Sporting bandannas, spiked armbands and matching denim vests, these guys are clearly not to be trifled with--least of all their leader, who augments his badassery with a pencil-line goatee and a jaunty French beret:

THIS...is the face of Crime!
But trifle with them John does, leading to an all-out brawl amongst the adult beverages in which Michael once again has to pull his comrade out of the fire. Once the avalanche of aluminum has ceased (with no spillage at all--I guess the cases and cases of beer cans were all yet-to-be-filled?), Mike and John toss the bums out and decide to meet after work for a cold one. But the Ghetto Ghouls hold grudges longer than the Viet Cong, apparently, and are also better organized. On his way to the bar, Mike is ambushed and viciously beaten by the Ghouls, who finally leave him a bloody clawed mess, paralyzed from the neck down.

As might be expected, this is just the sort of thing to send Johnny spiraling out of control. He breaks out his army gear and captures one of the Ghouls, threatening him with a blowtorch in order to learn the location of GGHQ. (Note: this is the genesis of the awesome but unrepresentative poster and VHS art; though John does immolate more than one victim, he doesn't use the flamethrower again, nor don the black motorcycle helmet pictured, except when, you know, actually riding a motorcycle.) He invades the Ghouls' graffiti and Che Guevara Poster-strewn base, kicks out the GG's topless girlfriends, and after a brief battle leaves the worst offenders tied in the basement for the rats to feed on. Nasty, but effective.

"I'm gonna tell you the Good News about Jesus Christ, and you're gonna LISTEN, GODDAMMIT!"

Having tasted the sweet nectar of vengeance mixed with shot of heady vigilante JUSTICE, John decides to take his battle against scumballs and scofflaws to the next level, in a way antiheroes like The Punisher would emulate throughout the coming decades in comics and film. He next sets his sights on local "meat mobster" Gino Pontovini (Dick Boccelli, in the role he was born to play), who has been extorting White Fairy Refrigeration for protection payments since the beginning of the flick. Showing his madd ninja skillz by infiltrating a restaurant bathroom and hiding in the trash receptacle, John outsmarts Gino's bodyguard and kidnaps the mobster, spiriting him away to a handy warehouse and hanging him above an industrial strength meat grinder! After getting Gino's house key and safe combination, John heads to the mobster's mansion, where he's surprised by the vicious doberman guard dog--but luckily a battery-operated electric knife has been left handy on the kitchen counter, leading to some impromptu canine carving. Upset at Gino's having left this crucial info out, John returns and wordlessly drops the meaty malcontent into the hopper! The screams and close-up shot of the resulting ground round exiting the grinder are actually rather gross and chilling--a well-done scene.

A Gristled Criminal

Actually, up to this point the whole movie has been very well done--Glickenhaus and/or his DP Robert M. Baldwin give us some great composition and lighting, particularly in the Vietnam battle scenes, with red and blue gels and the orange light of the HUGE ASPLOSIONS giving the whole thing a stylish, nightmare quality. Glickenhaus also has a knack for building suspense--the scene where John tortures the Ghetto Ghoul is constructed expertly, as is a later scene with John methodically drilling hollow points (in LIVE bullets--which I can't help thinking is a bit unsafe) and filling them with lethal mercury! (Then soldering the tops closed over the payload with an acetylene torch--again, not OSHA approved.) The only weak point technically is the editing, which jumps rather schizophrenically from scene to scene in the early going, threatening the attentive viewer with cognitive whiplash.

John uses the money stolen from the mob to make sure Michael's wife and kids are taken care of, then continues his one-man war on crime. He sends letters to the local news declaring his intent, signing himself "The Exterminator." It's at this point the NYPD get involved, especially after getting pressure from shadowy CIA Agent Shaw (a very Jonathan Frid-like Patrick Farrelly, who would feature the following year in the haunted whorehouse flick The Nesting). Shaw notes that the Exterminator must be stopped, since it's an election year, and the Powers That Be can't have a loose cannon going around doing a better job fighting crime than the police. (Even though to this point John has stopped exactly two sets of evildoers.) The crooked commish responds by putting his best detective on the case--Detective James Dalton, played by trash movie royalty Christopher George.

"Hello, Ladies."

Here the movie loses its thread a little, as we get lots of scenes with Dalton pursuing cold leads on the Exterminator's identity, which have nothing like the momentum of John's vengeance-fueled rampage. Still, George is fantastic in the role, bleeding confidence and charisma as he interrogates strung-out hookers, improvises dangerous hot dog cooking techniques, and romances sexy Eurodoctor Megan Stewart (mutant baby nommer Samantha Eggar). His exchanges with Agent Shaw are particularly fun, including following gem: (Shaw) "What do you think, detective?" (Dalton) "I think you gotta take a shit, and it's comin' out your mouth instead of your ass!"

Interspersed with this are a few more of John's Random Acts of Kindness (and Violence). He persecutes a few more Ghetto Ghouls via deadly car chase (after failing to stop them mugging an old lady), and, in the ickiest subplot, infiltrates a "chicken farm" where young boys are forced into sex slavery. (He finds out about this when he picks up a hooker who was badly disfigured by "a state senator from New Jersey" after she refused to participate by making him the meat in a strap-on and strapping-young-lad sandwich.) John shoots the Honorable Gentleman from New Jersey dead in the crotch with mercury and lead, then ties down the establishment's owner and douses him with gasoline before setting the whole place on fire.

A moment later, Tony shame-facedly put the dildo away. He hadn't realized Black Jesus was watching.

Eventually Dalton discovers the Exterminator's identity through some sterling detective work and a chance encounter at the hospital. (John is visiting Michael, Dalton is banging Dr. Megan in an empty hospital room.) This leads to a final confrontation in a construction yard, with a Shady Government Doublecross and a downbeat ending, the particulars of which I found satisfying and a little surprising.

As I've said, The Exterminator is mostly a very well-made film. Haphazard editing aside, individual scenes are put together extremely well, and for the most part it looks fantastic. It's also mostly well-acted. I mentioned Christopher George's charisma and machismo, which he lays on so thick you could spackle your walls with it. Robert Ginty is perhaps not the "rugged, virile, hard-looking action star" his imdb mini-bio would have us believe--I thought he looked a bit more like the hero from Grease 2, personally--but he does have a quiet, "beware the wrath of the patient man" intensity that is effective here, and would inspire the Frank Castles of the entertainment world for years to come. Other standouts include David Lipman as the "would be comical if not so damn creepy" Perverted Senator, and Tom Everett as a hotel clerk with a catchphrase I just can't get out of my head, even two days later. Eggar is fine in her role, but as that role has exactly nothing to do with the rest of the movie, it's clear she's only there for set dressing and to reflect some of George's smolder.

He looks at me, and I fall to Pieces.

In the final analysis, I think The Exterminator is an excellent 80s action flick, with just the right mixture of meat and cheese. There are some holes in the story, of course--the jump from "avenging my friend" to "protector of the downtrodden" happens off screen, and is never really explained, plus John's methods seem pretty haphazard, despite his corkboard full of downer headlines in his apartment--but those looking for airtight logic are perhaps kneecapped from the beginning. I'd have to say I slightly prefer The Executioner Part II to its inspiration--it's easily five times zanier, and boasts the unforgettable Coke-Angel Kitty to boot--but The Exterminator is good too, and thus earns an only slightly lower 2.45 thumbs score. Check it out--there's punishment due. :)

 A few more images from The Exterminator (1980):

"Could we interest youse in some time-savin' gadgets for ya lovely home, heah?"

The Exterminator prepares to bum-rush da show.

Sign o' the Times

Visual Irony

He's a Cool Rider

"Ya want da SHEEEEETZ?"

Wednesday Night at the Duke's Place: Always the Same

"Just as I suspected: Meatloaf is Evil."


Nicole Hadaway said...

"the most fearsome street gang this side of the Jets and Sharks" -- LOL! Although not too keen on dog-carving scenes; one of the reasons I didn't see the first ep of The Walking Dead is because a horse gets killed by zombies -- I don't like to see animals meet such grisly ends. People, yes, but animals.... not so much ;-)

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hi Nicole! To clarify, while there's plenty of gore in the flick, the dog carving does not happen on screen: we see John grab the knife, hear a yelp, and that's the scene. So if you're worried about CANNIBAL FEROX-style animal cruelty...don't. :)

And happy new year!

Anonymous said...

"I reviewed a movie from 1984 called The Executioner, Part II, a highly entertaining Rambo/Punisher mash-up whose enthusiasm and energy cannot be denied"

Actually, I seriously doubt that the makers of any of these films had the Punisher in mind. Before around 1985, the Punisher did not have its own comic book series, just occasional but not very frequent guest appearances in other titles. (Of course, the first Punisher film did not arrive till 1989, and it went straight to video in the US.)

However, The Exterminator has an "Easter Egg" that points to a possible source of inspiration. Late in the film, while speaking on the telephone to someone, Dalton accidentally starts to refer to the Exterminator as "The Execu-". This probably refers to Mack Bolan, the Executioner from the Don Pendleton novels.

(Pendleton himself paid homage to the Shadow and the Phantom in his writings.)

cinemarchaeologist said...

...and, to continue that thought, the Punisher was, in fact, a top-to-bottom rip-off of Pendleton's Executioner.

Other than being a combat vet waging a war of revenge at home, though, Pendleton's creation and the Exterminator don't really have that much in common. THE EXTERMINATOR is more like DEATH WISH for the grindhouse.

Ginty's character is clearly disturbed by his experiences in the war. When he shoots one of those fellows he ties in the trash, we see it as he sees it--a flashback of his performing the same kind of execution during the war. It's very well done, and a lot of people completely miss the fact that he does shoot the fellow (it sounds, from your description of the scene, as if you may have missed that, too).

I've always loved the movie (and despise the sequel). Its major shortcomings are the ones you identified--its overly elliptical, and uneven (way too much time with the cop, and at an awkward point in the story). It's a movie that--and yes, I realize I may deserve to be struck dead for writing this--deserves a remake.

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