Friday, 8 January 2010

The Exterminator (1980)

You know, they really shouldn't make meat
grinders that big. It's just asking for trouble.

KA-BOOM! That's how The Exterminator starts. No title screen, no establishing shot, the very first frame is a man being flung through the air by a fiery explosion. This is a movie that doesn't fuck around. It seems we're stuck in the middle of a Vietnam flashback, and soon a trio of American soldiers find themselves at the mercy of the VC. John (Robert Ginty) is forced to watch as his friend suffers a graphic decapitation (a fantastic Stan Winston special effect), but Mike (Steve James) manages to wrestle a gun from one of their captors and mow everyone down. This is kind of movie where gunfire causes people to randomly burst into flames (ie my kind of movie).

Years later the two have found work at some sort of produce packing plant in New York. A steady diet of vigilante films has taught me that being mugged and/or raped was a regular occurance in late 70s New York, a daily nuisance akin to bad traffic or stepping on gum, and sure enough Mike stumbles across a street gang called the Ghetto Ghouls stealing a few crates of beer from the warehouse. Fueled by 'Nam-flashback induced rage, Mike and John confront the gang and beat the shit out of them. They destroy a few crates of beer in the process too, but it's just Rheingold, so whatever.

The next morning Mike is on his way to grab a few beers with John after dropping his kids off at school (I guess they are starting early) when the gang members jump him and break his neck, turning him into a quadraplegic. In a normal vigilante film there would be a bit of build-up here, maybe where John visits Mike in hospital and promises to set things right, but The Exterminator cuts straight to John torturing one of the gang members for information. Again, no fucking around. Armed with an M16, he heads to the Ghouls' rathole apartment (where they are dancing around to The Trammps 1976 hit, Disco Inferno, making them an incredibly lame street gang) and blows one of them away. He ties up the other two beneath the building until the rats gnaw off their faces.

So, job done, right? Movie over. Well, not exactly. Their packing plant is being shaken down by the mafia, so John figures that robbing the gangsters would be a good way to provide for Mike's family. He runs this by Mike at the hospital, but Mike can only move his eyes, so for all we know he could be thinking "Holy shit, this guy is fucking nuts." He kidnaps the mafia boss, takes him back to the plant and suspends him above a huge industrial meat grinder until he gives John his house keys and the combination to his safe. John says "If you're lying, I'll be back", but when he gets to the mafioso's house he is attacked by a guard dog and is forced to kill it with an electric carving knife. True to his word, John heads straight back to the warehouse and, without a word, lowers the mafia boss into the mincer, turning him into hamburger. Mmm, that's a spicy meatball!

By now John's vigilante rampage is totally out of control. He is inspired to go on a Taxi-Driver-esque rescue mission when a run-in with a young hooker in bright red booty shorts uncovers a ring of pedophile rapists/child abusers. He comes back later, setting the ringleader on fire and shooting one of their clients, a greasy fat pervert who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a New Jersey State Senator. It doesn't state his party affiliation but I'm assuming he's a Republican. John also chases down and murders a trio of muggers after they beat and rob an old lady. Between all this he finds the time to euthanise his buddy (with his blessing, of course) and then go and inform his wife of his death. Kind of a dick move if you ask me.

Every vigilante movie needs a hard-bitten cop who is trying to capture the vigilante but deep down respects the way he cuts through red tape, violates human rights etc. Here's he's played by Christopher George. No, I'm not on a Christopher George marathon or anything (note to self: plan Christopher George marathon), it just so happens that he's in every film ever made. There's a lot of screen time devoted to a relationship between him and a doctor played by Samantha Eggar. It doesn't really amount to anything, although it does lead to a scene where George stops in at the hospital for a quickie and unknowingly meets the Exterminator (who informs him that his fly is open).

Eventually George is approached by some CIA types who feel that the vigilante is making them look incompetent. They want the Exterminator "out of the way", if you know what I mean (ie murdered). This doesn't sit well with George, because on some level he identifies with the vigilante. For instance, they are both Vietname vets and they both have a stash of machine guns packed into foam-rubber-lined suitcases. Also, George likes to cook his hotdogs with a couple of forks wired to an electrical outlet at his desk and the Exterminator likes into inject mercury into his .45 rounds for a bit of extra kick, so the two of them share the same spirit of DIY ingenuity. George leads the Exterminator into a trap, and although I won't tell you how it ends, you should know that 'splosions will be involved.

I'm a sucker for gritty, sleazy genre films like this, so it's surprising that I managed to avoid this one for so long. Performances are pretty good, especially Robert Ginty, and I liked that he doesn't look like your typical tough-guy vigilante hero. He looks like he could be Mark Hamill's stunt double. It's written and directed by James Glickenhaus, who made a few action movies before starting a production company that brought us a few cult films including Maniac Cop, Frankenhooker and both Basket Case sequels. This one is pretty raw and cheap, but it does a good job of capturing the sleazy side of late 70s/early 80s New York that is fetishised by movie nerds who aren't old enough to remember it and would never have gone there if they were. It's pretty good stuff.

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