Monday, August 29, 2011

Blu-ray Review: THE EXTERMINATOR (1980)

Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Label: Synapse Films
Release Date: September 13th 2011
Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 102 mins
Video: 1080p 16x9 Widescreen (1.78:1)
Audio: DTS-HD MA English 2.0, DTS-HS MA English Mono
Director: James Glickenhaus
Cast: Christopher George, Robert Ginty, Corky O'Hara, Samantha Edgar
Tagline: If You're Lying I'll be Back

THE EXTERMINATOR opens in Vietnam with quite literally a bang - an explosion in fact, an enormous APOCALYPSE NOW worthy explosion that sends a soldier through the air. That airborne man is John Eastland (Robert Ginty, COP TARGET) who's on patrol with his squad when they come under fire from heavily-armed VC troops. John and the other soldiers, including Michael Jefferson (Steve James, VIGILANTE), are taken hostage by the Viet Cong who tie the men to wooden stakes. They're interrogated for information about a forthcoming strike and when the answers don't come as easily as he would like the VC commander takes a razor-sharp machete and slices the throat of one of the men as if it were warm butter, it's nearly a complete decapitation as if his head was on a hinge, it's almost comical in it's gruesomeness, his mouth agape in silent scream. Major props to the late great special effects man Stan Winston who created an entire animated human body for that one, it's jaw-dropping stuff. 

During the commotion Michael is able to  slip free of his binds and get the better of a VC soldier, commandeering his firearm and mowing down the enemy captors. It's a great pre-credit 'Nam sequence complete with napalm strafing and machine gun fire, it's complete chaos and it makes for a briefly epic intro. A helicopter evacs the soldiers and the film seamlessly transitions to an arial view of the New York skyline. It's sometime later and both John and Mike are employed at a  warehouse, it ain't the good life but it's a life, the pay is shit but as they say - it's a job. When John and Michael catch a trio of punks from the Ghetto Ghouls gang attempting to heist some beer from the warehouse they intercede and kick some major ass, the punks just don't stand a chance against the seasoned 'Nam Vets. The punks have their revenge however when they later ambush Michael on his way to have a brewski with Eastland. They assault him with chains and a meat-hook which they sink into his spine leaving him paralyzed from the neck down unable to speak.

While Michael convalesces at the hospital Eastland  can't simply abide this injury and swears vengeance against the thugs who crippled the man who saved his ass back in the 'Nam. Kidnapping one of the gang he interrogates hims with a flamethrower, after squeezing the info from the punk he tracks the remaining trio to abandoned building where they're partying with whores to the beat of The Trammps "Disco Inferno". Eastland blasts one of 'em dead and quickly incapacitates the remaining two, leaving them tied to a garbage strewn floor where the infamously large NYC rats make quick work of 'em, killing one outright and horribly disfiguring the other.

His streak of vigilante justice doesn't end with the Ghetto Ghouls and he next sets his sights on Gino Pontivini, a mafioso who collects protection money fom the warehouse Eastland works for. In an elaborate scheme Eastland awaits the mobster in the bathroom trashcan of a restaurant, drugs Pontivini and takes him to a warehouse where he suspends him from the ceiling with chains directly over an industrial sized meat grinder. Pontivini desperate for his life after a quick demonstration of the machine, tells Eastland the location of the safe at his home and gives him the keys to the security alarm. Eastland tells the mobster "If you're lying I'll be back" leaving him suspended in the warehouse.  He enters the kingpin's property and is promptly attacked by a vicious Doberman barely escapes with his life by carving the canine with an electric knife. After securing the cash, which he intends to give to Michael's family, he returns to the warehouse and he wordlessly lowers the shrieking mafioso into the grinder feet first, apparently pissed that Pontivini neglected to mention the ravenous canine surprise that awaited him.

The crimes eventually catch the attention of the NYPD and detective James Dalton (Christopher George, PIECES, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) takes a particular interest in the string of crimes.  He starts to piece together that the acts are the work of a singular vigilante, but he's not the only one to put two and two together. A CIA spook named Shaw (Patrick Farrelly, TH NESTING)  is brought in to dispose of the could-be political threat discreetly when local politician's fear Eastland's one-man crusade to burn the scum off the streets of NYC will have an adverse affect on incumbent politicians re-election campaigns. In the 80's it was either crooked politicians or toxic waste and usually both, gotta love it.

THE EXTERMINATOR is a film I recall seeing on the VHS shelf many times at my favorite mom and pop video store as a youth but somehow it's eluded my grasp until now. I guess in hindsight I was  more into zombie and slasher films at that age, not so much the revenge exploitation or action stuff but if I knew then what I'd be depriving my future self of all these years later I goddamn well would have picked it up. It's not so much that this is an original film, but it is a well-crafted actioner with some real horror elements, it's a very complete exploitation package.

The film is really one of the grittiest exploitation actioners I've ever seen, it's downright disturbing, particularly when Eastland lays the pain down on a child prostitution ring featuring a pervy senator played by David Lipman (TV's LAW AND ORDER) who get his kicks by dipping a hot soldiering iron into a vat of vaseline and burning the flesh of prostitutes and young boys, it's pretty disgusting stuff and we don't even see him actually doing it, just the setting up of the pre-burn scenario made my skin crawl. It's pure revenge nirvana as Eastland takes down the ring with extreme prejudice. 

Robert Ginty didn't seem an immediately obvious choice for the man on a one-man revenge streak, it seemed more likely that the badass character Michael played by Steve James would be but it's a nice twist and Ginty turns out to be one of the silver screens most memorable one-man revengers. Also making a great appearance is the always enjoyable Christopher George as Detective Dalton. The man sweetens every film he's ever been in, and his performance here is no different. He's got a few fun foibles like a jury-rigged lamp wired to two forks that he cooks up hotdogs with, fun stuff. Dalton is given a love interest in the film by way of Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar, THE BROOD) and while the two enjoy a Stan Getz concert in the park it is revealed that he too served in 'Nam and his character seems to serve as view of a 'Nam vet whose life has gone a bit differently in contrast to his driven-to-vengeance counterpart.

Eventually we know that the paths of Dalton, Shaw and The Exterminator must converge and you just know it's packed with squib rupturing exploitation actionwith giant 'Nam sized explosions - it does not disappoint. The film is not perfect by any means, structurally there's some rough narrative shortcuts, funky editing and the occasional bad bit of dialogue but for the most part, and where it counts, this is a visceral stunner of a revenge film.

Director James Glickenhaus has created not just a gory and violent revenge film but also a gritty New York City film that evokes a darker, meaner city that's long gone, the golden age of the 42nd street grindhouse, pimps, prostitutes and rampant drug use. See it here and in films like Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER because it just ain't there anymore, for better or worse. It's a great looking film and Synapse's HD transfer does it proper justice.

A few years later producer Mark Buntzman would direct a sequel also starring Ginty without the assistance of Glickenhaus who would only direct six more films before settling into the role of producer for a William Lustig's MANIAC COP and Frank Henenlotter's FRANKENHOOKER and BASKET CASE 2, 3 before leaving the industry altogether. This film has definitely whet my appetite to seek out Glickenhaus's other film like MCBAINE with Christopher Walken and THE SOLDIER with Ken Wahl. If you've seen his others films and have any strong suggestions please send 'em my way.

Blu-ray: Synapse Films are on a winning streak of stunning Blu-ray releases and the hot streak continues with their presentation of THE EXTERMINATOR which has been restored in HD from original vault elements and the transfer looks pretty sharp. The film is presented in 1080p 1.78:1 16x9 widescreen. Upon submitting the film for classification to the MPAA for theatrical release they demanded that 47 seconds of gore and violence needed to be excised to achieve an R-rating, now we have it here fully incorporated into the running time with all the gore and more violence - YES! I'm pleased to say that for a 31 year old film the transfer is clean and mostly free of print damage, colors are vibrant, flesh tones appear accurate and the black levels are typically very good. It doesn't look like much if any DNR has been applied either and the grain is quite noticeable during the darker scenes, particularly the pre-credit and opening credits sequence but it's not problematic. I say give me some grain any and every time; I prefer it to the plasticine effects of a DNR scrubbing.

Audio options include English language DTS-HD MA mono and DTS-HS MA stereo. The mono fares quite well with no distortions and is free of hiss, snap, crackle and pop. It's not overly dynamic and neither is the newly restored, previously thought lost forever, original stereo soundtrack but it ain't bad either. No subtitle options are included.

Special features are slim by Synapse Blu-ray standards but potent including a 16x9 enhanced "redband" Theatrical Trailer (1:24) and six 4x3 TV Spots (3:12) all of which are presented in 1080p HD. There only other feature is a commentary with director James Glickenhaus moderated by Chris Poggali from the
Temple of Schlock blog, it's a fine listen with Glickenhaus recalling the production and filming of the independent feature, discussing the selection of actors, shooting locations and a bunch of anecdotal remembrances. He speaks about the helicopter scenes from the film 'Nam pre-credit sequence and how the pilot was the unfortunate soul who also piloted the helicopter that sadly took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two small children during the filming of John Landis's TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE segment, he revisits the story several times during the commentary. He also points out that the actor Dick Boccelli (ALICE SWEET ALICE) who portrayed mafioso Gino Pontivini was in fact an original member of the rock n' roll group Bill Haley and the Comets. A standard definition DVD of the film is also included as a nifty feature. Slim though the bonus content may be the commentary is a very good supplemental.

Special Features
- The Original Director's Cut Featuring More Gore and Violence
- Newly restored original Stereo Soundtrack Mix
- Audio Commentary with Director James Glickenhaus
- Theatrical Trailer (1:24) 16x9 HD
- Television Spots (3:12) 16x9 HD
- DVD Version of the Film with Features

Verdict: A seriously gritty exploitation-revenge actioner that needs to be seen by any cult, exploitation or horror enthusiast. Synapse Films do it again with a powerhouse revenge film with a knockout transfer. A recommend of the must-have variety, you need to own this! Need further proof? Here's a quote from the typically hysterical Roger Ebert found on the DVD decrying the film as a "sick example of the almost, unbelievable descent into gruesome savagery in American movies"... Shit, I couldn't have said it better myself.