In Jan Harlan’s excellent documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), the science fiction author Brian Aldiss discusses working with the great director. They came into conflict while working on what would become A.I. Artificial Intelligence over their approach to narrative, Kubrick was dismissive of narrative and told Aldiss that all one needed for a good movie was eight unsubmersible sections. If a filmmaker can find these and put them in order, Kubrick explained, it barely matters if they had little connecting them, the audience will do the work. This is probably best exemplified by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film made up of a succession of stunning sequences that don’t seem to fit together in a conventional way.
This approach to the construction of a movie has been adopted by some directors of less esteemed critical standing than Kubrick, Dario Argento’s Suspira (1977) and its less coherent sequel Inferno (1980) both perfectly embody this approach. It is fair to say, that where Argento is rightly regarded with reverence by genre fans for his golden period, the director James Glickenhaus may never have found himself being compared to Stanley Kubrick before. Nevertheless his raw 1980 revenge thriller The Exterminator also throws narrative drive out of the window in favour of a series of memorably wet set-pieces that made the film a hit on its release, but also led to censorship issues both in the UK and the US. Stanley, alas, is no longer with us, so it is impossible to say if he would nod in approval at the comparison or whether he would react with horror. I’d like to think he’d be amused rather than react like Jean Luc Goddard being told that the filmmaker who best embodies his auteur theory (apart from Kubrick) would be Russ Meyer. Yeah, take that Luc, you gauloise smoking ponce!
Anyway, The Exterminator.
John Eastland (Ginty) is a Vietnam veteran working in a meatpacking plant. When he discovers some local street punks known as the Ghetto Ghouls stealing beer from a warehouse, he attempts to intervene. It doesn’t go well, and only the timely appearance of his best friend (and fellow Vet) Michael (James) saves his bacon. The Ghouls get their revenge later when they ambush Michael and beat him so severely that he is paralyzed. Eastland is understandably upset, and sets out on what is now known, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, as a “roaring rampage of revenge”. Well, a rampage of revenge at least, Ginty’s impassive performance doesn’t allow for much roaring. Soon Eastland is widening his scope to neighborhood gangsters, pimps and pederasts which brings him to the attention of the authorities in the form of weary, seen-it-all detective James Dalton (George).
The plot of The Exterminator really does not hang together, there is little sense of what is driving Eastland’s actions especially after he exacts brutal violence on the punks who disabled his friend. Glickenhaus (also the writer) piles on the urban horror and a number of unnecessary subplots that are sketchy to the point of incoherence. One subplot involving Dalton’s romance with a doctor played by Samantha Eggar is so spectacularly tangential to the meat of the film (more of the “meat” in a minute) it can only exist to shoehorn Eggar’s name above the title on the poster (she was the most high profile member of the cast).
What The Exterminator has going for it is a terrific sense of place, New York has only looked this seedy in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There is a great sequence of Eastland walking down 42nd Street past Grind-house cinemas and porno stores, surrounded by pimps, hoes, hustlers and johns. In the new hi definition transfer, you can practically smell the moral turpitude. This is the pre-Giuliani big Apple, rotten but delightfully tart. On one level the film is essential as a document of the old dirty and dangerous, but weirdly sexy New York.
Added to this as several standout sequences of pure hi-octane exploitation goodness. The film opens with a Vietnam prologue which is genuinely amazing. Shot after the completion of the film, with California doubling as Nam, the sequence is stunningly impressionistic. Without musical accompaniment, the screen explodes with fire, bodies fly through the air balletically, and there is one of the best decapitations in cinema history. This effect was an early example of the wizardry of one Stan Winston, and still looks amazing today. It is also an effect that was cut by the BBFC from British prints of the film on release, and many subsequent video releases.
There is also a quite incredible scene in which Eastland threatens a gangster by dangling him over an industrial meat mincer. He wants information, when he gets it he utters the classic line “if you’re lying, I’ll be back”. Boys and girls, do we think he will make a return visit? I don’t need to answer that surely but I will add that a certain James Cameron was paying attention.
Ginty is an interesting choice for a lead, hardly a Charles Bronson type, he is physically unimposing and boyishly vulnerable, especially in comparison to Steve James – James would go on to be equally memorable in William Friedkin’s underrated To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). The uncharitable might call Ginty’s performance wooden, but I like to think that he is playing the character as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. This is perfectly understandable given what happens in the Vietnam sequence.
I will grant you that I could have lived without the hideous country and western songs that bookend the film. Then again, even these add a certain retro charm.
Of course as with any revenge thriller, there is an underlying moral conservatism that some viewers may not be able to get past. This is an undeniably seedy and voyeuristic film that goes beyond the likes of Dirty Harry (1971), although it stops short of the ethical hypocrisy of a later entry in that franchise, Sudden Impact (1983). The Exterminator
is far more concerned with being an entertainment than say Abel Ferrara’s brilliant Ms. 45 (1981) – the Citizen Kane of urban revenge movies in my opinion. Glickenhaus and producer Mark Buntzman pay lip-service to the film having some social merit in the extras, but frankly I’m not buying it.
Ultimately, the film tails off in the final third, and the subplot of Detective Dalton’s investigation of Eastland’s activities is just not that interesting. These issues mean the film is good, but not great, when analysed as a stand alone piece of work. However, the movie is tremendous fun and is a valuable street level window on a New York that is gone forever. The city may be a more pleasant place to live and visit now, but it’s far less interesting.
The Exterminator is available uncut (albeit with some digital blurring to obscure a still pinned to a wall in brother scene) on UK Blu Ray in a fine looking version from Arrow Films.
This review first appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk