Following the popularity of other vigilante movies like 'Death Wish' and the 'Dirty Harry' series, 'The Exterminator' is an unabashed crime actioner about a man cleaning the streets of New York after his best friend is sent to the hospital. In a shocking and blunt manner, the film from writer/producer/director James Glickenhaus, whose only other notable features are 'Maniac Cop' and 'Frankenhooker' where he served as producer, chooses to expose the uglier underbelly of the violence plaguing the Big Apple. The plot is mildly intriguing, but it's the movie's fearless attitude toward showing audiences the seedier side that makes it surprisingly memorable.
Right from the start, with a large-scale opening far-too grand for what's really necessary for a low-budget production, the film addresses the hero feeling unsatisfied and struggling with PTSD after his experiences in Vietnam. It's a smart move since the rest of the story is pretty gross and despicable, so we need a character to empathize with before displaying the blood and violence. John Eastland (Robert Ginty) is such a character, which is hugely important for this genre. And Ginty, who only previously worked in small bit roles and television series, brings a likable and believable performance to the part of a man trying to forget the horrors he witnessed during the war.
We see him hang around with his best friend and fellow soldier, Michael Jefferson (Steve James), another good, blue-collar Joe raising a family the best he can. Although we don't spend much on-screen time with him, James also provides an empathetic character, a guy who genuinely doesn't deserve what happens to him, which is not to say that anyone ever does. I'm merely pointing out the tricks of the trade for this type of genre, those which the film strictly adheres to rather well. It's important to establish early on characters we're not too quick to judge as crazed killers. Instead, we're meant to cheer them on as they rain a vigilante rage upon the criminals who terrorize the streets of the city.
In the opening scene, the two men gain a very unique bond that we assume has kept them together all these years. In wishing to live normal lives, they discover that that wish is more challenging to acquire than it should be. After the attack and in a fit of rage, John suits up and goes after the gang members responsible with a flamethrower and an M-16. By this point, and even as things progress for the worse, the criminals definitely don't receive any pity from the audience because the filmmakers have laid their cards out in the right sequence. We actually want John to continue the fight, even as Detective James Dalton (Christopher George), another Vietnam Vet, is hot on his trail. It all comes to a close with a very nice plot twist and exciting, tense action for a small production.
As I said, 'The Exterminator' was basically made to capitalize on the popularity of revenge/vigilante films of the period, except with a fraction of the budget placed into feature like 'Dirty Harry' and 'Death Wish.' Still, Glickenhaus does amazingly well with the material and delivers an entertaining crime actioner, earning itself a respectable place on the short list of low-budget box-office surprises like 'Billy Jack' and 'El Mariachi.' Despite its limitations, the film is quite entertaining and decently told, with good special effects and a spectacular opening. Over the years, it's garnered a strong cult following and continues to enjoy some reputation amongst enthusiasts and genre collectors.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Synapse Films unleashes 'The Exterminator' to Blu-ray as a two-disc, unrated Director's Cut package. Both the Region Free, BD50 disc and the DVD-9 sit comfortably on opposing panels inside a normal size blue keepcase. The disc goes straight to the main menu with music and full-motion clips.
'The Exterminator' cleans house with this surprisingly good AVC-encoded transfer, which is far superior to previous standard-def releases. Presented in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the picture shows that this encode was clearly made from a remastered print and nicely cleaned up, looking fresh and rejuvenated for a new generation of exploitation movie fans.
Coming from a low-budget production house, there is only so much that can be done to make this movie look good, but Synapse Films has done the best they could, giving fans a satisfyingly detailed presentation with great resolution and definition. Several scenes are reasonably soft and somewhat poor with a bit of noise in a couple of nighttime sequences. But overall, it looks better than expected with a brighter, more vibrant color palette and healthy flesh tones. Fine lines around the faces of actors, clothing and the several interiors shots are quite distinct and resolute, considering the movie's origins and age. Blacks are accurate and deep while well-balanced contrast levels provide the image with crisp clarity.
Unless one is familiar with the movie's history and past releases, the picture quality may not be highly impressive, but this high-def presentation is a clear improvement and looks great.
Like the video, only so much can probably be done with the source elements, and sadly, the audio clearly demonstrates that with two middle-of-the-road DTS-HD MA options — one in mono and the other in restored stereo.
They're not completely awful, though the first track does sound a bit better and cleaner with good dialogue reproduction and strong fidelity. However, both soundtracks are terribly limited with a mid-range that's fairly clear and balanced but shows hardly any frequency differentiation. The entire presentation simply feels flat and dull. Low bass is pretty much MIA, yet gunshots come with some very light impact. There's also one scene when John raids the chicken house where noise in the vocals is quite apparent.
This track isn't one of the worst we've heard on Blu-ray, but it also lacks life and presence.
Synapse offers the low-budget actioner with a sadly puny assortment of bonuses, though they do include a DVD copy of the movie.
'The Exterminator' is a mildly tense low-budget exploitation flick that surprised at the box office. It's a fairly straightforward revenge/vigilante movie with some style and a matter-of-fact portrayal of violence. Despite showing some obvious production limitations, the film from James Glickenhaus is fairly entertaining and one that satisfies genre expectations. The Blu-ray arrives with improved picture quality compared to previous releases, but an average audio presentation. Supplements also leave a great deal to be desired, but in the end, the package as a whole makes it worth the purchase price for genre enthusiasts and collectors.