Sunday, September 11, 2011

The streets get cleaned up in HD. THE EXTERMINATOR hits BLU-RAY...

D. James Glickenhaus
1.78 Anamorphic Widescreen
Blu Ray /DVD Combo Pack
Synapse Films

This seminal exploitation action classic is finally available again on the digital format after being out of print for a number of years. It was available in the very early days of the DVD format in an acceptable but not particularly impressive ltbx dvd release that was in turn just a port over of the Anchor Bay Ltbx VHS release from the late 90's. This new release see's the film for the first time totally remastered in full HD and totally uncut for the first time ever with some scant extended violence. No full scenes mind you, but when you see that fist infamous decapitation you will totally notice how it is much more juicy and unpleasant that you have ever seen it before.

For the uninitiated THE EXTERMINATOR is another in the very popular late 70's canon of revenge fantasies featuring the everyman who is pushed to the limit by some ferocious street crime and sets out to clean it up on his own. Here a lot of the structure is handled differently making the film interesting. Robert Ginty plays Vietnam Vet John Eastland whose best friend (played by B-Movie Kung fu actor Steve James) is beaten and mugged by low level street thugs. This vicious beating lands the poor guy in the hospital paralyzed. So John sets out on the streets to find the thugs to do them in. But even after quickly finding them he realizes this is not quite enough. Mounting hospital bills and just a general feeling of drowning in the filth of the street sends him on a mission to continue to take out the trash. Working his way through the various scum and street life of New York.

Many things set THE EXTERMINATOR apart from other grindhouse examples of the genre right from the get go; namely solid performances from Robert Ginty and Steve James (who is unfortunately not on screen very much). James is set up early in the film to be the actual hero of the piece as he saves his best friend not once, but twice. Once in the incredible, violent and harrowing Vietnam opening sequence, then later in the scene that introduces the thugs that will do him in. The film pulls a fast one by having him crippled and Ginty become the the avenging spirit of the film. It is a smart bit of scriptwriting to play it out this way and both actors do a good job of creating a real sense of believability in their friendship. Early on when Ginty finds a pair of thugs responsible for his friend's condition one of the thugs tries to reason out his behavior by claiming "it doesn't matter, he was only a nigger!" sending Ginty in a searing rage. He exclaims back to the thug "That...Nigger is my best friend you motherfucker". But he doesn't yell the line. He delivers it in a deliberate clinched teeth bit of rage that is entirely 100% believable. A moment of devastating emotion that grounds everything he does for the rest of the film.

What people remember THE EXTERMINATOR for is the outrageous violence and bone crunch stunts. For a low budget movie this was pretty over the top stuff that pushed a lot of limits. From the opening scene in Vietnam the included possible the most realistic decapitation ever put on film as well as the most insane helicopter stunts performed INCLUDING those in such films as APOCALYPSE NOW. Turns out the stunt drivers responsible are the same guys who did the helicopter stunts on TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE. Another moment everyone remembers is the infamous meat-grinder death or the torture with soldering iron. All of which are here in full blown remastered delight. But one thing I always found unique about the movie is how there is a moment about half way through where the movie stops and we get to watch as the main character creates specialized poison bullets using mercury. The scene serves no other purpose except as a "how to" on exactly how such a thing can be done!

I'm also a big fan of the music in the film, especially the final song in the film by Chip Taylor called Theme for an American Hero. A song that captures the perfect loneliness of the main character and of a generation of broken men coming home from the Vietnam war.

The film has a sub plot featuring Christopher George as a cop who is on the trail of The Exterminator and while his performance is good and he fills it with quirks, I have always found this part of the film to be dead weight. Granted this is where we get a lot of the major Vietnam subtext as he discusses it with his bubbleheaded girlfriend played by Samantha Egger. But for me the main film is with Ginty and his revenge. When the film drifts from him I find myself drifting too.

Dictatorially it is a strange movie too. Glickenhaus makes some really odd choices that can either be really disconcerting or considered brave depending on how you want to look at them. He cuts a lot of what other director's would feel is necessary. Things basic screenwriting would dictate important like finding, stalking and catching the bad guys. Early on in the film Ginty catches the first of the thugs. Only we NEVER see any of that. The film fades out and fades back and he has the guy tied up and he is now questioning him with a flamethrower. We never see how he found the guy, caught the guy or even how he got the flamethrower. He tells the guy "if you're lying I'll be back" a line that even becomes the tag line of the trailers. Yet he never comes back to finish the guy off and ends up finding the gut much later in the movie when he is robbing an old lady. Once again no explanation of how the guy got loose or why he never went back for him. Some of that is simply lazy screenwriting , but some of it is clearly Glickenhaus dispensing with "fat" and cutting to the chase.

At the end of the day people remember the movie because it is a successful exercise in cinematic brutality and revenge wish fulfillment. Lots of us wish we could be THE EXTERMINATOR. Director Glickenhaus understood that, and was smart enough to craft real characters and put good actors in there to play them. That is the reason the movie has stood the test of time. This new DVD/Blu Ray combo delivers it the respect it deserves. A pristine presentation, a fantastic commentary (with fun nuggets like the explosion in the film was the biggest ever shot in New York) the first time ever on home video the Dolby Stereo tracks are available, and of course the trailers and TV spots.Synapse Films should be commended for going the extra mile (like the ALWAYS do) for making sure this was done right. Jump on this set if you are any kind of self respecting exploitation film fan.

Review © Andrew Copp

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