Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Blu-ray Review: THE EXTERMINATOR (1980)

Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: 18 Certificate
Duration: 102 mins
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.78:1), 1080p HD
Audio: Uncompressed LPCM Mono Audio with Option Subtitles
Director: James Glickenhaus Cast: Robert Ginty, Christopher George, Steve James, Samantha Eggar, David Lipmann
Tagline: If You're Lying I'll Be Back

THE EXTERMINATOR opens during the Vietnam war with a fiery explosion, it's an enormous APOCALYPSE NOW worthy fireball that sends soldier John Eastland (Robert Ginty, COP TARGET) tumbling through the air. Eastland'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 one VC commander would like he 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, his head flops to one side as if 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 chaos and it makes for a briefly epic intro that really amps up the film right from the get-go. A helicopter evacs the soldiers and the film seamlessly transitions to an arial view of the New York skyline sometime later. John and Mike are now 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. However, the punks have their revenge later that day when they ambush Michael on his way to have a brewski with Eastland. They brutalize him with chains and a meat-hook which they sink into his spine leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

While Michael convalesces at the hospital Eastland cannot simply abide this injury to his best friend, the man who saved his life in 'Nam, and swears vengeance against the thugs who crippled Michael. 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 from 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" and leaves him suspended in the warehouse. He enters the kingpin's property and is promptly attacked by a vicious Doberman barely escaping 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) whom takes a particular interest in the string of vigilante crimes. He starts to piece together that the acts are the work of a singular man, 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 someone on a one-man revenge streak, it seemed more likely that the badass character of 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 action with '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 an authentic slice of New York City cinema 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 Arrow Video's  HD transfer does it proper justice.

Just a few years later producer Mark Buntzman would write and direct a sequel to the film starring Robert Ginty but without the assistance of director Glickenhaus who would only direct six more films before settling into the role of producer on such films as William Lustig's MANIAC COP (review HERE)  and Frank Henenlotter's FRANKENHOOKER (review HERE) and BASKET CASE 2, 3 before leaving the film industry all together. I would highly recommend you also take in a viewing of Glickenhaus's 'Nam vet actioner MCBAINE (review HERE) starring the one and only Christopher Walken, it's a thing of absurd beauty. This viewing has really whet my appetite to also check Glickenhaus's THE SOLDIER with Ken Wahl. If you dear reader have seen any of his others films and have any strong suggestions please send 'em my way.

Blu-ray: Arrow Video's Blu-ray of THE EXTERMINATOR presents the film in glorious 1080p in it's original aspect ratio of 16:9 widescreen (1.78:1). I'm quite happy to tell you 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 always say give me some grain; I prefer it to the plasticine effects of a shitty DNR scrubbing.

The lone audio option is an English language Uncompressed LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. While not overly dynamic the mono fares quite well with no distortion and is free of hiss, snap, crackle and pop, dialogue, score and effcets sound quite good.
Special features begin with a short video introduction from director James Glickenhaus. After that we get more fom Glickenhaus with the Fire and Slice: Making The Exterminator featurette, an 18 min interview with the director with clips from the film. The director discusses his inspiration for the film,the treatment of 'Nam vets returning from the war, casting the film, Christopher George and even compares his films to the songs of Bob Dylan - huh?

Next up is 42nd Street Then and Now: A tour of New York's former sleaze circuit from director Frank Henenlotter. Henenlotter, the director of BASKET CASE, FRANKENHOOKER and BAD BIOLOGY, the man is such a character as he guides us through the former sleaze circuit known as 42nd Street. He guides us through the history of the location's infamous from their golden age of grand theatre productions to burlesque houses, grindhouse cinema and hardcore pornography outlets right on through to the Disney-fication of the area in the 90's. It's fun stuff, the man's enthusiasm for sleaze is awe inspiring and were even treated to an impromptu blockhead routine, awesome stuff.

The last feature is an audio commentary with producer Mark Buntzman moderated by Calum Waddell who really keeps the conversation going, great stuff. The Synapse disc of the film features an commentary with Glcikenhaus so it was nice to hear another fine track for the film. Buntzman is also the writer/director of THE EXTERMINATOR II and his insights into both productions are pretty great and as usual High Rising Productions extras only serve to enhance the enjoyment of the film.

My early screener of the Blu-ray did not include the ephemeral wonderment that Arrow Video are known for, including the reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Tom 'The Dude Designs' Hodges, a double-sided fold-out artwork poster or collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by critic David Hayles. That said, I love the Tom Hodges artwork for the release, it's mighty magnificent and vibrantly appropriate.

Special Features:
- Introduction to the film by director James Glickenhaus (0:18) 16:9 HD
- Fire and Slice: Making The Exterminator - An interview with James Glickenhaus (18:36) 16:9 HD
- 42nd Street Then and Now: A tour of New York's former sleaze circuit from director Frank Henenlotter (15:07) 16:9 HD
- Audio commentary with Mark Buntzman, producer of The Exterminator and writer/director of The Exterminator II, moderated by Calum Waddell.

Verdict: THE EXTERMINATOR is simply one of the most enjoyable early-80's revenger I've seen in some time - it's pretty fantastic stuff. A seriously gritty exploitation-revenge actioner that deserves a place in the collection of any cult, exploitation or horror enthusiast worth their salt. This is a recommend of the must-have variety, you need to own this! Need further proof? The typically hysterical 80's era Roger Ebert once called 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. 4 outta 5