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Exterminator, The

Synapse Films // Unrated // September 13, 2011 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 3, 2011 | E-mail the Author
Writer/director James Glickenhaus shrugs off comparisons to Death Wish in his audio commentary, and...well, yeah, he's right. Sure, The Exterminator is also an urban revenge flick about a seemingly ordinary schlub who dishes
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out a little vigilante justice -- clean up this whole mess here...just flush it right down the fucking toilet -- after someone close to him is savagely attacked by street thugs. The comparisons pretty much end there, though. I mean, Death Wish was...what, one guy with one gun? Whatever. In The Exterminator, Vietnam vet John Eastland (Robert Ginty) storms into the hangout of the gang that crippled his closest friend and mows pretty much everyone down with an assault rifle. A few gangbangers manage to survive that initial assault, so before he leaves, Eastland smothers them in honey so that by the time the cops get there, rats will have gnawed all the fleshy parts off of their faces. Eastland doesn't call himself The Exterminator for nothin'. I mean, the guy lovingly makes his own mercury-laced bullets. He dangles a mobster over an oversized meat grinder. He wrestles a Doberman. He torches the sleazeball running a white slavery ring. There's even some electric carving knife-fu. Like the man says, the punishment's gotta fit the crime, and the extreme measures The Exterminator takes ought to give you some sense of just how horrifically fucked-up the thugs, mobsters, and pushers in this movie are.

So, wow. Where do I start? For one, The Exterminator isn't dragged down by the glacially slow extended setup that plagues most urban revenge movies. I mean, by the time the counter's ticked up to twenty-two minutes or whatever it is, you've caught a prologue in Vietnam, a graphic beheading, Steve James of American Ninja fame kicking the shit out of a few robbers, those thugs hacking him up and snapping his neck, and The Exterminator gunning those bastards down and leaving what's left for the rats. Any other vigilante flick would've thrown in a few weepy, tortured monologues, at least one training montage, a love interest who's only there to get kidnapped and/or murdered, and some moustache-twirling bad guy who wouldn't get his till just before the end credits start to roll. The Exterminator doesn't get distracted by any of that standard issue shit, freeing it up to go straight for the jugular. This is an unrelentingly cruel movie, complete with an underground ring where children are bought and sold as sex
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slaves, and the things one of those twisted fucks does with a soldering iron made even a mentally unbalanced gorehound like myself start to squirm.

The Exterminator is every bit as sticky and gloriously sleazy as the best grindhouse flicks of the era, but it's hardly mindless. If you're paying attention, you'll probably notice that pretty much every character in the movie thumbs their nose at the rules at some point, and invariably someone pays dearly for it. Most movies like this would try to personify crime -- one scenery-chewing nemesis who represents everything that's wrong in this world...someone who's there just to give the audience someone to boo-and-hiss at and someone for The Exterminator to gun down when the climax rolls around. Nope. The character of The Exterminator is an awful lot like The Punisher, and at the end of the day, their enemy is crime. It's not a battle with a finite endpoint, and neither vigilante has any illusions otherwise. The point is to just take as many of them down as they can before going down in a hail of bullets themselves. If The Exterminator has anything resembling an arch-enemy, it's Detective James Dalton (Christopher George), and the vigilante doesn't even know the man exists. Dalton represents what life could've been like for John Eastland. As deeply scarred as both men were by their years in Vietnam, Eastland has been unable to cope while Dalton has built at least some sort of life for himself. Dalton fights crime as an officer of the law rather than as a vigilante. Eastland mostly keeps to himself, trying to find solace at one point in the arms of a prostitute; Dalton, meanwhile, has a pretty doctor (Samantha Eggar) hanging off his arm. Dalton's life isn't exactly sparkling and idyllic -- the guy cooks a hot dog in his dark, dank office by plugging a couple of forks into a socket, for crying out loud, and he keeps an arsenal from his military days on-hand too -- but still, he's dealing. The Exterminator touches on that counterpoint element without being all that heavy-handed about it, and the movie's overall preference to show rather than tell is appreciated as well.

That gleaming edge of The Exterminator hasn't dulled much at all over the past thirty years...such a visceral, gruesome adrenaline rush than it still outclasses more recent action flicks with sixty times the budget and none of the teeth. Sure, the movie never really figures out what to do with Samantha Eggar, and many of its fades to black are so awkward that it looks like a TV edit cutting to commercial, but even its missteps are easy enough to ignore. In the running as one of my favorite action movies on Blu-ray, period. Very Highly Recommended.

At the tail-end of his audio commentary on this Blu-ray disc, writer/director James Glickenhaus says "it's a very nice transfer." Maybe that's not as artfully overwritten as something a seasoned Blu-ray reviewer would write, no, but that does pretty much tell you everything you need to know about this Blu-ray disc since...well, Synapse really has put together a very nice transfer for The Exterminator. Clarity and definition are both rock-solid, even if I wouldn't exactly describe the image as being razor-sharp and overflowing with detail. It's a very natural and very filmic presentation. Its colors are drop-dead gorgeous...very impressed with how vivid and richly saturated they can be. The gritty texture of the original photography remains intact, and there really isn't anything in the way of damage or wear. The Exterminator is limited somewhat by the original photography, but I'm definitely left with the sense that not only is this the best the film has ever looked, it's also the best it ever will. Typically tremendous work from Synapse Films.

Synapse is going the combo route with The Exterminator, so no matter what format you're eyeing, you're gonna get both a DVD and a Blu-ray disc. That probably makes a screenshot comparison kind of pointless since you're not pushing any cash towards one format over the other, but...well, I put one together anyway. I'm surprised how much difference there is in the colors between these two discs:

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The Exterminator is served up on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The video has been encoded with AVC.

The original stereo elements for The Exterminator have long since been lost, to the point that even with as many times as the film has been issued on home video on these shores, it's never been presented in anything but mono. An extensive search for the stereo masters unfortunately didn't turn up anything usable, so Synapse turned to a Japanese Laserdisc with the stereo audio intact. That makes this Blu-ray disc the first stereo release of The Exterminator in the U.S. since the movie was making the rounds in theaters thirty years ago. Although the stereo audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio to reproduce it as best it can, not having the original elements on-hand means there's only so much polishing that can be done. Personally, I found myself preferring the monaural mix -- also lossless, by the way -- since it sounds so much meatier and more substantial. The one glaring flaw that stands out in the mono track is some 'warbling' in the background in a few scenes. It seemed to start in the raid on the chickenhouse and continued on through several different sequences after that. To my (admittedly) unprofessional ears, it sounds like an artifact from when it was digitally scrubbed clean...I couldn't spot anything like that when I'd toggle back to the stereo track. Otherwise, I really don't have any gripes at all. The fidelity is exactly what I'd expect from an independent action flick that just rang in its thirtieth anniversary, and there aren't any clicks, pops, hiss, or dropouts to get in the way. Not exactly demo material for an overpriced home theater rig, no, but clearly the best that could be hoped for.

The two English soundtracks are it for audio options; no dubs or subtitles this time around.

  • Audio Commentary: With so much of the cast unfortunately having passed away, there's not much room for a loaded special edition of this thirty year old exploitation flick. There's only one extra of
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    note on this Blu-ray disc, yes, but this commentary track with writer/director James Glickenhaus is so terrific that I don't feel even a little bit shortchanged. It's a genuinely thoughtful and insightful that paints a very intriguing picture of what it was like to shoot an independent action flick on the streets of New York in era when all the explosions and tumbling bodies were hammered out in front of a 35mm camera rather than rendered in a server farm in Palo Alto. Glickenhaus is a consistently engaging speaker, and moderator Chris Poggiali is so familiar with the film and lobs out so many great questions that there's never any dead air. There are too many highlights to list, but to rattle off a few...? The Exterminator came close to scoring a cameo with The Pope in one hospital sequence. The MPAA's eyes laser-focused in on a penis that had to be optically fogged out of the background of one scene, even though it just turned out it was some dude's leg. Without so much as consulting with him first, Christopher George's agent passed on a role in Deliverance that later went to Burt Reynolds and could've taken George's career in a completely different direction. (...although I guess that means he wouldn't have been in Pieces, and the world would've been worse for it.) It's revealed that The Exterminator sports the largest explosion filmed up to that point in NYC. Glickenhaus also speaks about a particularly grisly connection between The Exterminator and The Twilight Zone. This is such a great, great commentary and an essential listen for anyone buying or renting this Blu-ray disc.

  • TV Spots and Trailer (4 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras are a short theatrical trailer and an onslaught of TV spots. All of them are presented in high definition, and that goes for the 4x3 TV spots too.

In case you skimmed past the end of the 'Video' block, the second disc in the set is a region-free DVD of The Exterminator.

The Final Word
Of all the urban revenge flicks that littered drive-ins and grungy theaters in the '70s and '80s, The Exterminator easily stands out as my favorite. The excess and exploitation hardly ever ease up on the throttle, and its cruelest and most vicious moments still make even a lifelong gorehound like myself wince and squirm. The Exterminator holds up startlingly well more than thirty years later -- a hell of a lot better than most of the big-budget action flicks coming down the pike these days -- and it's kind of a thrill to see it uncut on Blu-ray too. Highly Recommended.
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