1974 was a banner year for vigilante fantasies. Whether this was due to a rising crime rate in the United States, the establishment’s fear of a younger generation, or a bitter desire to witness any kind of retribution for the crimes President Nixon would soon walk away from, one thing was for certain: the public was becoming comfortable with the idea of pulling the trigger. Death Wish, released in July, was a success. Nixon would resign in August. Marvel Comics published the first appearance of the Punisher. Violence was in vogue.
The Exterminator, released in September of 1980, was considered by critics to be a rip-off of Michael Winner’s film. Director James Glickenhaus, in an interview included on Arrow Video’s stellar Blu-ray release, says he purposely avoided seeing Death Wish until after filming. He cites the Spaghetti Western as his influence, and the film agrees with this; much of the action takes place during the day, and the alleyway locations of New York in the fall have a dry, desert-like appearance. Robert Ginty’s character roams like a Leone creation and is mostly reserved, but prone to violent outbursts.
Recalling Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Ginty’s John Eastland figuratively stumbles his way through the film. Initially he wanders into a low-rent heist by the Ghetto Ghouls, a gang who worries about running red lights but not mugging the elderly. Later, he stumbles onto a pedophilia operation. By film’s end he is stumbling back on solid ground, after taking a symbolic plunge that mirrors the opening shot. What this says is that Eastland is not a bloodthirsty psychopath. He’s an ordinary citizen who’s witnessed man’s cruelty, who rights wrongs whenever he comes across them. He doesn’t have a game plan (which is why I have a problem with his signed letter to the media. He’s not the Zodiac by any stretch).
But is Ginty the actor too ordinary? Bronson was perfect for Death Wish because he could pass as a common man and still look and act like a star. With the charismatic Steve James (American Ninja) positioned as his sidekick, Ginty’s performance can come across as wooden by comparison. His performance plays better on second viewing. When he finds the Ghouls dancing to “Disco Inferno” on his first outing, there’s a tension to his movements, and he doesn’t overdue facial tics. He’s a quiet man who isn’t used to emoting like this. Yes, it’s a quiet performance, but it’s meant to be. Still, imagine if Steve James and Ginty had switched roles? It would have been difficult to keep the same grim tone.
The Exterminator is famous for its cover art. The image of a masked man whooshing a jet of flame across the ground is undeniably striking. The film often receives a bad rap because no one actually suffers death by flamethrower. Still, we get to see a charred corpse (and a Stan Winston one at that!). And besides, if you’re looking for gore, there is an unnerving beheading almost immediately after the film starts. But the camera doesn’t fetishize it; rather it’s presented in a way that’s meant to show the cruelty of the act. The first time I watched the film, I couldn’t make out this scene because whoever owned the VHS before me had rewound it so many times that the tape was ruined. It’s a disturbing effect, and one that’s sadly relevant.
But it’s not all unpleasant. Like Rolling Thunder, the movie’s title sequence is set to a pleasant-sounding country-folk song before the carnage. Here it’s more successful because the lyrics of Roger Bowling’s “Heal It” make a better fit: “I have been a witness to the spilling of the blood,” he sings. It’s a good tune, but the closing song, “Theme for an American Hero,” is a nihilistic masterpiece. Sung by Jon Voight’s brother (who knew?), Chip Taylor, the song is legitimately haunting. This soundtrack could do with a vinyl release. The collector community would be better for it.
Upon release, The Exterminator was dismissed as grotesque and cruel. I won’t disagree: it’s an ugly film, thematically. Our hero is surrounded by the same scum Taxi Driver warned you about. And some of them, in Eastland’s opinion, need to get Bickled (if I may be so bold). The famous 42nd Street scene is a highlight of the film, beautiful in its lost debauchery. You have to wonder how many of the street denizens, who paw at and curse Ginty, were actors. It comes off as real, because it probably is.
Roger Ebert, in his review, argued that the character’s actions were not plausible, and to an extent, he’s right—using an industrialized meat grinder is a bit outlandish for Eastland’s serious personality. It’s overkill. But almost every other method of execution is blunt, without flair. It’s awkwardly placed bullet holes, and kills without quips. The Exterminator is a serious classic, and deeper than people give it credit for. When Eastland tries to console a hysterical widow after the mercy killing of her husband, he says, “It’s what he wanted, believe me.” Which begs the question: at what point do we convince ourselves we have the right to snuff a life? Cut to the widow seeing him out, a sad smile now on her face. If you look close, as she shuts the door, her expression changes, and we have our answer.
The Exterminator is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.