The Exterminator (1980)
“Show, don’t tell.” Thanks to modern technology, theatrical productions can utilize state-of-the-art equipment and techniques to create a more immersive experience for an audience. The reason theatre remains so exciting is because those are real people up on that stage. Anything could happen, but there are limitations. Sometimes, we get massive sets, costumes, wall-to-wall music or sound effects, etc.. In several other productions, we’ve just got actors and dialogue. The one leg-up movies have always had on theatre is the ability to literally go anywhere and show people, places, and things rather than having performers merely talk about them. Many films are criticized for “telling, not showing,” meaning instead of using film as the visual medium that it is, the characters or even a narrator explain what’s going on or describe events that we never see. Sometimes this is due to budgetary restraints and yet in others, it’s mere laziness by the filmmakers.
Action director James Glickenhaus is definitely not lazy. In the span of fifteen years, he wrote and directed seven features, including the Jackie Chan vehicle The Protector (1985, a fun film but a difficult production), The Soldier (1982), McBain (1991), and the underrated Shakedown (1988). At the same time, his company SGE Entertainment helped bring us great stuff like William Lustig’s Maniac Cop (1988) and Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker (1990) and the two Basket Case sequels (1990/1991). He’s become something of a legendary figure amongst aficionados of B-movie action flicks. In his most successful film, The Exterminator (1980), we’re certainly shown plenty of action and mayhem, but many of the how’s and why’s are explained away with little regard for plot or character motivation. The characters in The Exterminator are practically cartoons, having all the depth of an animated fabrication in a 5-minute short.
What’s baffling about this film is that the plot does make sense, but it feels as though either huge chunks are missing or Glickenhaus simply didn’t bother filming the connective tissue of the plot. Characters who have had no interaction with each other inexplicably know one another. Major occurrences are described, but never shown. A relationship that feels central to the plot ends up having barely any bearing on it whatsoever. Timelines are also muddled. Scenes playing out with great economic storytelling appear to be happening in real time. I surmise that Glickenhaus wrote an epic and rich screenplay and then had to pare it down with a meat cleaver. I’m even willing to believe that perhaps he had so much respect for an audience that’d already seen so many Death Wish rip-offs, he figured they wouldn’t need familiar story beats to understand the action onscreen. I doubt that, but it’s a theory, anyway.
As stated above, these characters are like cardboard cutouts. They’re shallow and certainly act like humans, but not enough to be convincing as actual people. Still, why do we need character development when the opening shot features a gigantic fireball and a soldier flying through the air? That’s how you open a movie. The pyrotechnics throughout this Vietnam-based (but most definitely not shot on location, despite what the credits say) are stunning. Who exactly is setting off all of these explosions? Who is shooting at who? The residents of Whoville? The band The Who? Who Goes There by John Campbell? Whoooooooo cares?
The soldier who comes crashing down to Earth relatively unscathed is our hero, John Eastland, played by the late Robert Ginty. A former musician, Ginty had a fascinating career as a sometime writer, much later a director, and an acting resume that included two Hal Ashby features, Bound for Glory and Coming Home, a recurring role on The Paper Chase TV series, and thanks to this film, he became a C-level action star. Yes, one could say he was on the B-level, but think about it this way. Prior to Under Siege, Steven Seagal was regarded as a B-movie action star, and I think most people can agree that Seagal is a lot more famous than Robert Ginty. There is one other credit I need to address from Ginty’s filmography. Warrior of the Lost World (1984) was brutally skewered on MST3K, deservedly so. It’s not a good movie. In fact, it’s pretty terrible, but there’s a twist ending that almost redeems the whole thing. I’m ashamed to say this, but I looked it up to see if there was ever a sequel made for Warrior of the Lost World. Sure, the movie’s bad, but I still wanted to know what was going to happen next!
Rushing to Eastland’s aid is Michael Jefferson (the late, great Steve James, a Glickenhaus favorite and featured in Vigilante, To Live and Die in L.A., and American Ninja), whose name would seem racist if it weren’t a pretty common last name. They’re captured and John is interrogated by a member of the Viet Cong, played by the prolific George Cheung. In a jaw-dropping scene of graphic violence and deeply unconvincing gore effects, a member of the Red Army slashes an American soldier’s throat, just slightly, mind you, and the very fake head’s mouth drops open and then flops over, exposing a bloody neck stump. It’s unbelievable and I’m truly uncertain whether it’s amazing or terrible. Michael frees himself from his bondage and orchestrates the escape. Tons of explosions go off, which look fantastic since the scene takes place at night, and the survivors ride off in the chopper.
The country twang of Roger Bowling’s voice on “Heal It” accompanies aerial shots of New York, with particular emphasis on the Statue of Liberty. I assume there’s a deleted lyric here: “I had to heal it...by killing a ton of motherfuckers.” John and Michael work at a warehouse that’s in the pocket of the local mob, whose silent goombahs arrive to collect their protection cash. You know within two seconds that these guys are gangsters.
Speaking of gangs, a bunch of punks who refer to themselves as the Ghetto Ghouls break into one of the storage bins and start to abscond with one of the more famous beers in cinema, Rheingold. John finds them and nearly gets his face cut off, but Michael shows up and beats the ever-loving fuck out of them. Here’s the first of many time issues with this film. One, we have to assume these punks were arrested right after this. Michael is next seen saying goodbye to his wife and kids then heading out through a dilapidated New York. The film isn’t the grimiest depiction of the Big Apple I’ve ever seen. Remember, this is the same year as Maniac (1980). The Ghetto Ghouls show up and strangle him with a chain. The leader in the beret does look fabulous as he stabs Michael in the back with some kind of three-pronged weed cultivator. We cut right to John and Michael’s wife at a playground and he tells her, pretty non-chalantly, that Michael has been paralyzed. He says “this morning,” so I have to ask: how did he find out before the wife did and how long did he wait to tell her? It’s not that it doesn’t make sense. The editing is just extremely abrupt.
The film keeps moving at a relentless pace. John finds a gang member and threatens him with a flame thrower. He arrives at the hideout, which is a dank hovel with some mood lighting. He busts in and if he were Kurtwood Smith, would’ve informed the young ladies: “Bitches leave!” He takes down the few members who are there, including the Che Guevara-looking fuckhead (Ned Eisenberg, in his first role before appearing in The Burning and The Night Of), who unwisely calls Michael a “nigger.” In one of the more famous retorts in the film, John replies “That nigger was my best friend, motherfucker.” Dude. As John drags the two punks off to a very short ass life of incredible pain, he’s haunted by PTSD-style flashbacks to the horrors of Vietnam.
Later, a chubby and hairy undercover cop reports two gang members had their faces eaten off by rats, although one of them is still alive. Detective James Dalton shows up and-holy shit! It’s Christopher George! The top-billed George, whose amazing credits include Grizzly and Pieces, is supposed to be the yang to Ginty’s yin. A brilliant detective who doggedly pursues this vigilante taking the law into his own hands. Instead, he’s completely wasted here. His actions have no bearing on the story and he has a romantic subplot with Dr. Megan Stewart (the incredible Samantha Eggar, The Collector, The Brood) that has nothing to do with anything. The only reason this part of the movie exists is because he literally lets his dick lead him to identifying “The Exterminator.”
Your standard mob boss Gino Pontivini (Dick Boccelli, original drummer for Bill Haley and the Comets and Schillinger’s dad on Oz) is pissed about problems at the meat packing warehouse. However, what really grinds his gears is the state of the funny pages, which he loved in his youth, but now claims “all they got is cosmic ducks and star shit.” What the hell newspaper is he reading? I’d be down with those comics. Eastland notices the bag men at the warehouse and figures he can steal some cash from the mob to help out Michael’s family.
Meanwhile, Dalton is doing some snooping, asking a bartender about local hookers. He’s pointed in the direction of Candy (Cindy Wilks), whom he locks in a seemingly abandoned jail cell that contains some kind of dentist-style torture chair. She was there the night the Ghetto Ghouls were attacked and he wants answers. It’s actually one of the best scenes in the movie, with Wilks, a junkie prostitute, giving an intense and jittery performance. If this scene actually led somewhere, it would be even better.
Pontivini takes his latest squeeze and his associate to “The greatest steak house in town!” Ooooo! They’re going to Steak n’ Shake? He’s gotta “make room for the meal,” if you know what I mean, and his huge bodyguard checks out la toilette. It’s all clear, and pretty dingy for a fancy steak house, but Eastland is hiding in the trash can. He drugs Pontivini, Dexter-style, and yanks him out the window. The gangster wakes up and realizes he’s hanging from the ceiling. A huge meat grinder approaches from down the hallway, seemingly of its own volition, which is creepy, and settles under the shrieking mobster. Eastland says nothing as Pontivini screams at him, assuming he’s part of a rival mafia family. He finally lets him know that he just wants money. Pontivini gives him everything he needs; the address, his keys, the combination to his safe, etc.. The only illogical bit here is when Eastland asks about the bodyguard and his lady friend, who earlier had been coming on to the other gangster at the steak house for some reason. Pontivini claims they abandoned him, but how would he know that? I would assume his crew is desperately searching for him as they speak. It’s silly and makes no sense.
Eastland arrives at Pontivini’s pad and is immediately attacked by a Doberman Pinscher who, to the film’s credit, was established earlier as a vicious guard dog. The pup nearly makes mincemeat out of John, but he uses an electric knife to kill the poor dog, who was just doing his job. John’s a dick. We don’t see him get any money, although way later it’s indicated that he did. He comes back, super ticked off, and grinds Pontivini up. It’s amusing, but the “meat” coming out looks pretty much like regular beef with a little pool of blood at the bottom.
A news report tells, but again, doesn’t show, that Eastland has written a letter about his mission to clean up the city, signing it as “The Exterminator.” I have no problem doing a few mental gymnastics to make sense of a movie’s plot, but I’m just used to at least a cause-and-effect style of moviemaking. If we’d seen him writing a letter or just dropping off a package somewhere, this wouldn’t come so out of nowhere. We get some business guys in an office who are concerned about this “exterminator” screwing up the upcoming election. I assume they’re part of the mob, but way later, it turns out they’re CIA.
A random prostitute gets accosted by a man who will come to be known as the chicken pimp (Tony DeBenedetto, a regular in mob-related films like Raw Deal, Analyze This, and My Blue Heaven). His client, who turns out to be a state senator from New Jersey (David Lipman, a Danny DeVito/Josh Mostel-looking actor who was the unlucky trick in Frankenhooker), is a chicken hawk, i.e. he likes young boys, and he wants a girl involved. She’s resistant, and they end up burning her with a soddering iron dipped in vaseline. It’s brutal, although not explicit in terms of what we see onscreen. Just one of those moments that are necessary to show us some evil bastards who will hopefully get the fuck killed out of them.
I know New York has its share of hustlers, but wowza! It’s like John has a twenty-dollar bill stapled to his ass. Everyone accosts him on the street, including the hooker from earlier. He inexplicably takes her up on the offer for companionship, even plunking down 25 bucks for clean sheets from a weird ass attendant in a plexiglass hut. Is this the career he envisioned for himself? She doffs her top and we glimpse some massive scarring. She tells him where it happened and “The Exterminator” has his next personal assignment.
One of the coolest but honestly pointless scenes is a wordless sequence where John manufactures expanding bullets, also known as dumdum bullets. We get the exacting minutiae of drilling the tops of a bullet and placing a single drop of mercury inside. He welds tiny pieces of metal to close the hole. I mean, I love this scene and it reminds me of Jonathan Banks scenes on Breaking Bad where he’s just doing prep work for an elaborate plan, but bullets are bullets and it seems like they’d do fine without the spa treatment. He also has a huge arsenal already, which includes fucking grenades. Do all Vietnam vets have this stuff?
He gains entry into the house of ill-repute by claiming he has some “chicken for sale.” He makes up a whole story about a couple of kids with a junkie mother, which just feels gratuitous because he then just knocks the chicken pimp down. Could’ve done that right away. What’s really odd is that the pimp acts like a turtle on its back. As in, we don’t see what he falls on, but he seems to be struggling to get back up. Eastland pours lighter fluid and burns his perverted ass up. The senator from New Jersey gets it next and John frees a “boy,” who is probably at least twenty if he’s a day. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to see a literal young boy tied up, but still... “when ya start getting crow’s feet, I might lose interest.” -Herbert.
How this chicken pimp was still on the street is obviously an indictment of the shoddy justice system. The film’s blatant Death Wish overtones are obviously Glickenhaus’ response to the state of New York at the time of filming, yet the laundry list of crimes this dude has committed is still stunning. Dalton hears this guy’s resume, “42 arrests...promoting prostitution, assault, rape, white slavery, corrupting the morals of minors.” Seriously?
The hot doc calls Dalton to let him know there’s a good jazz concert at Battery Park, to which I wish he replied, “I’ll be the judge of what’s good...missy” The dialogue scene is not the draw of this scene. In fact, I barely even listened to it, since Christopher George has two forks hanging from a light fixture. He pulls a hot dog from out of nowhere and sticks the forks into both sides. It’s literally cooking this thing. It gets better because he gets mustard and a goddamn bun from a drawer and chows down. Wow, just...wow.
While Dalton and Megan check out the jazz concert and he drones on about Vietnam nonsense (see? John and Dalton are connected!), we see that the Ghetto Ghouls have persevered and kept their 501(C)(6) status as a for-profit organization by robbing a sweet old lady and smacking the fuck out of her. Like a fly to shit, Eastland just happens to be walking by, accosts a motorcyclist who was just trying to help, then steals his bike. There’s an amusing scene between the three punks that’s clearly improvised and then one of them gets blown away by Eastland, in an odd cut which only shows the tail end of him flying through the air in slow motion. There’s a chase and the hot rod gets wrecked, which probably upset car enthusiast Glickenhaus.
Dalton ignores a CIA agent at the crime scene who has some wild conspiracy theories. He informs the agent, “I think you have to take a shit. It’s comin’ outta your mouth instead of your asshole.” Samantha Eggar is thirsty and invites Christopher George for a “midnight admission.” It just so happens John is visiting Michael in the hospital, where he pulls a Million Dollar Baby and literally unplugs his life support machine. He even cuts the cord just for good measure. As Dr. Stewart rushes to Jefferson’s room, Eastland coolly strides past the doctors and nurses, informing Dalton that his fly is down. So, we finally get some kind of justification for this whole doctor/detective relationship, because DING DING! Dalton realizes the helpful guy who just left is “The Exterminator!”
We get a random black sergeant, who yells, “What the fuck, Dalton?!” as he gets back to the precinct. Dalton also has a huge arsenal, including a massive gun that we never get to see him use, and they raid Eastland’s apartment. Maybe stake it out first so they know when he’s around. He’s busy delivering more bad news to Michael’s widow, then spots the snipers on his building, so he rides off to make a call. While Dalton checks out Eastland’s copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, he receives the call from John, who sets up a 3am meeting at a shipping yard. At Crane 5, to be exact. The CIA tapped the phone, by the way. What’s insane here is that Eastland acts like he knows who Dalton is. How? We never see them interact, nor see John reading a newspaper or seeing a news report that identifies Dalton as the head investigator. It makes no sense whatsoever.
We arrive at the final scene. Eastland has set up a ton of road flares for their meeting place, making it rather festive. He tackles Dalton and disarms him, making some kind of point about being “a victim.” Before he can return the gun, Dalton is unexpectedly shot down, followed by Eastland, who falls into the river. We hear the CIA agent say “Washington will be pleased.” In certain cuts of the film, this is where the film ends, but this is the director’s cut, so John emerges from the river, wounded, but alive. Another big aerial of the Statue of Liberty, a very American image that was given to us by a Frenchman, and we get the second half of the credits, which were cut off at the Sound credit for Bill Daly in the beginning. Ginty would return for Exterminator 2 (1984), a very messy production that conveniently forgets that John Eastland was identified by the police and the CIA in the original film. Gives him more time to “exterminate,” I suppose.
The film isn’t a mess, it just has the most simplistic timeline. I have no idea what editor Corky O’Hara was doing here, but his work the same year on Christmas Evil was a whole lot better. Cinematographer Robert M. Baldwin does an adequate job capturing the action here. It’s nothing special, but he gets the job done. He would shoot a few more Glickenhaus films, as well as some important horror films like the forgotten gem Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Basket Case 2 (1990), Frankenhooker (1990), and even Robert Ginty’s directorial debut, The Bounty Hunter (1989).
I was sadly disappointed by The Exterminator. It’s got a few fleeting moments of inspiration, but doesn’t display the kind of fire and passion that fueled filmmakers to rail against the decay of a once majestic city.