The Exterminator (1980)

Posted: December 19, 2022 in Uncategorized

I took a detour through the grime to finally get James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator under my belt. This Death Wish offspring wastes no time getting to its reason for being: its opening shot if of a massive explosion.

After a prologue set (very, very unconvincingly) in Vietnam, the film shifts to NYC, and a pretty action-packed ten minutes or so leading up to the brutal mugging of Robert Ginty’s best friend, which then sets off Ginty’s vigilante crusade.

This is, as expected, a vision of NYC as a crime-infested dystopia well on its way to turning into the city of The Warriors or Escape from New York. But at least almost all of the villains meeting Ginty’s brutal justice are white (with one of the most hideous being a New Jersey state senator). The location shooting certainly brings authentic atmosphere to the improbable proceedings.

And I will say this about said proceedings: the movie knows what its audience wants, and sets out to deliver, with all the throat-slittings and immolations one could hope for. The action choreography may not be spectacular, but there is a lot of it, and the storytelling is efficient. If any given scene doesn’t have something violent occurring, it’s just quickly setting things up for the next bit of mayhem.

Ginty is rather oddly cast, more believable as an everyman than as a stone-cold killer — in other words, the reverse oddity of Charles Bronson’s casting in Death Wish, where we believe him as a killer, but not as a liberal architect (an effort of suspension of disbelief not to be outdone until Bronson was cast as editor Francis Pharcellus Church in Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus). Somehow, though, Ginty’s low-key presence winds up working in the film’s favour, making his actions all the more shocking.

Christopher George and Samantha Eggar are here too, with George looking rather amused by the ongoing nonsense, and Eggar holding on to her dignity, which, given the circumstances, is no mean feat.

I haven’t seen a lot of the Glickenhaus oeuvre. I think the only others I’ve seen are The Soldier and McBain (yes, there really is a McBain, played by Christopher Walken, and he pre-exists The Simpsons), and it’s been decades since I caught those. But if I can trust my memory, The Exterminator is the one that most rigorously keeps its promises to the audience, however dubious those promises might be.

Special shout-out to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Condemned of Altona, whose paperback edition makes two cameos here, so we can all ponder the deeper, Existentialist themes of the film.

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