James Glickenhaus' 1980 exploitation-action movie The Exterminator had one of those covers that leaped off the shelves at you in the video store back when VHS ruled the planet. That guy with the mask and the flamethrower looked both cool and creepy and the image instantly made you wonder what his story was. If you ever got around to renting the movie to find out just what was going on there, you might find yourself slightly disappointed in the lack of true flamethrower action but marginally impressed with the bleak, gritty movie shot in the bowels of the New York City that no longer is.
The movie begins when two co-workers, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and Michael Jefferson (Steve James of the American Ninja films) stop some thugs known as the Ghetto Ghouls from stealing beer from the warehouse they work at. Later that night the gang plans their revenge and they attack Michael, sending him to the hospital completely paralyzed from the neck down and unable to talk or communicate in any way other than simply blinking his eyes.
John's none too happy to see his best friend and former 'Nam buddy taken down like that and so he decides to go out and get revenge on the punks that ruined his friend's life, Death Wish style. He tracks down the Ghetto Ghouls and makes them pay, but he doesn't stop there. After having a few more flashbacks to his days in the army, John decides to clean up the streets and dubs himself The Executioner as he sets out to save a prostitute and kill a few white slave traders who hang out on the seedy side of town.
Unfortunately for John, the cops don't look too kindly on this type of behavior. They follow his trail from the Ghetto Ghouls hide out to the dead mobster made into hamburger through to his other killings and soon track him down. Detective James Dalton (played by Christopher George of Enter The Ninja) with the help of Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar of Cronenberg's The Brood) are going to put a stop to the killings before it's too late, or at least they think they are before the CIA is called in…
While the movie has its share of faults, mainly some jarring continuity problems, harsh edits, bad dialogue and heavy borrowing from other (better) vigilante films, it moves along fast enough and contains enough sleazy and violent set pieces that it works. A fun cast of b-movie regulars makes the movie more enjoyable than it would be other wise and Ginty's performance in particular is pretty intense at times, even if it comes across as pretty ham-fisted.
The film also benefits from a truly intense opening scene where we see John and Michael escaping from the Vietnamese deep in the heart of the jungle. A grisly beheading, plenty of exploding squibs and some intense action kick the movie off to a roaring good start and while it can't quite keep up the intensity of that opening salvo, scenes such as the dog attack, the meat grinder, and whorehouse invasion go a long way towards at least getting close.
Ultimately The Executioner isn't a really good movie, but it is definitely an entertaining one. Some really nice footage of the seedy side of early eighties inner city New York gives it some atmosphere, and the violence is twisted enough in spots to hold your attention. It's not a classic, but it's a decent low budget exploitation film nonetheless. A sequel was made in 1984 in which Ginty reprised his role, but Glickenhaus have anything to do with it, though he did return to similar tough guy territory a few times when he directed McBain starring Christopher Walken in 1991 and The Soldier in 1982 with Ken Wahl. He'd later go on to produce some of Frank Henenlotter's films as well as the first of William Lustig's Maniac Cop films, all shot in New York City as well and all capitalizing on the seedy locations it provides.
The 1.85.1 widescreen transfer (which is unfortunately not anamorphic) boasts some pretty decent colors but is riddled with mild print damage in the form of specks and scratches throughout. None of the blemishes are so bad as to take you out of the film but they are definitely there. On the other hand, black levels stay pretty strong, flesh tones look lifelike and natural, and there's a pretty decent level of both foreground and background detail present in the image. It would have been nice if the picture had been cleaned up a little more than it has been on this DVD, but the movie is perfectly watchable the way it is here, even if it isn't perfect.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack isn't too bad, though there are at least a half a dozen brief drop outs on the soundtrack that occur throughout the movie. No subtitles, closed captions or alternate language dubs are included but the single solitary mix that is there sounds okay for a low budget exploitation movie. The soundtrack, which includes a blistering scene in which Disco Inferno is played, sounds decent enough and though there is some hiss present and a few scenes are a bit on the muffled side you shouldn't have any serious problems following the action, even if things definitely could have sounded better on this release.
This release is completely barebones, without even a chapter menu included (the film is divided into chapters, but that's it). How hard would it have been to put a chapter menu on the disc? Or a trailer? Or a still gallery?
While the presentation left room for improvement, it was at least serviceable and The Exterminator is an entertaining, sleazy, violent exploitation movie that doesn't break any new ground but remains an entertaining time killer. The lack of any extras at all is disheartening but fans of low budget actioners should get a kick out of this one, which makes it a solid rental.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.