James Glickenhaus’ 1980 exploitation-action movie The Exterminator had one of those covers that leaped off the shelves at you in the video store back when VHS ruled the planet. That guy with the mask and the flamethrower looked both cool and creepy and the image instantly made you wonder what his story was. If you ever got around to renting the movie to find out just what was going on there, you might find yourself slightly disappointed in the lack of true flamethrower action but impressed with the bleak, gritty movie shot in the bowels of the New York City that no longer is.
The movie begins when two co-workers, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and Michael Jefferson (Steve James of the American Ninja films) stop some thugs known as the Ghetto Ghouls from stealing beer from the warehouse they work at. Later that night, the gang plans their revenge and they attack Michael, sending him to the hospital completely paralyzed from the neck down and unable to talk or communicate in any way other than simply blinking his eyes.
John’s none too happy to see his best friend and former ‘Nam buddy taken down like that and so he decides to go out and get revenge on the punks that ruined his friend’s life, Death Wish style. He tracks down the Ghetto Ghouls and makes them pay, but he doesn’t stop there. After having a few more flashbacks to his days in the army, John decides to clean up the streets and dubs himself ‘The Executioner’ as he sets out to save a prostitute and kill a few white slave traders who hang out on the seedy side of town.
Unfortunately for John, the cops don’t look too kindly on this type of behavior. They follow his trail from the Ghetto Ghouls hide out to the dead mobster made into hamburger through to his other killings and soon track him down. Detective James Dalton (played by Christopher George of Enter The Ninja) with some help from Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar of Cronenberg’s The Brood) are going to put a stop to the killings before it’s too late, or at least they think they are before the CIA is called in…
While the movie has its share of faults, mainly some jarring continuity problems, harsh edits, bad dialogue and heavy borrowing from other (better) vigilante films, it moves along fast enough and contains enough sleazy and violent set pieces that it works. A fun cast of b-movie regulars makes the movie more enjoyable than it would be other wise and Ginty’s performance in particular is pretty intense at times, even if it comes across as pretty ham-fisted. You’ve got to love Christopher George as the top cop, he plays his role with plenty of enthusiasm and charm, a smile on his face far more often than not and basically just coming across as really likeable. Steve James, too, also just gives off that ‘nice guy’ vibe in this movie, making John’s quest for revenge all the more understandable – you want him to get back at the punks who sent this nice family-man to the hospital!
The film also benefits from a truly intense opening scene where we see John and Michael escaping from the Vietnamese deep in the heart of the jungle. A grisly beheading, plenty of exploding squibs and some intense action kick the movie off to a roaring good start and while it can’t quite keep up the intensity of that opening salvo, scenes such as a vicious dog attack, a meat grinder killing, and an amazingly seedy whorehouse invasion go a long way towards at least getting close.
Ultimately The Executioner isn’t a really good movie in terms of originality, but it is definitely an entertaining one. Some really nice footage of the seedy side of early eighties inner city New York gives it some atmosphere, and the violence is twisted enough in spots to hold your attention. A sequel was made in 1984 in which Ginty reprised his role, but Glickenhaus didn’t have anything to do with it, though he did return to similar tough guy territory a few times when he directed McBain starring Christopher Walken in 1991 and The Soldier in 1982 with Ken Wahl. He’d later go on to produce some of Frank Henenlotter’s films as well as the first of William Lustig’s Maniac Cop films, all shot in New York City as well and all capitalizing on the seedy locations it provides.
The previous release from Tango Entertainment wasn’t very impressive – not surprisingly this Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Synapse pretty much mops the floor with it in every way you’d expect it to, starting with the transfer. Presented in AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen in full 1080p high definition, The Exterminator looks very good here in all its grainy glory. There’s no noise reduction in sight nor are there any compression artifacts or edge enhancement issues to complain about. The end result is a nice, film like transfer that presents this rough around the edges exploitation film looking very much like a rough around the edges exploitation film. Those expecting a pristine, polished transfer might be annoyed but those who are familiar with how the film has looked on home video in the past will likely be quite impressed by how nicely this restored version of the uncut version of the movie looks on Blu-ray. Yes, some shots are definitely softer than others and some are a bit dirtier than others (the shot with Ginty and the hooker walking past the porno shop for example) but by and large there’s a very impressive increase in detail here and vastly improved color reproduction as well.
Audio tracks are offered in Mono and restored Stereo, both in English language DTS-HD tracks. No subtitles or alternate language tracks are provided. Both tracks provide clean and clear audio without any issues, though the opening scene by its very nature is a bit louder and more bombastic than the rest of the movie. Levels are well balanced and there aren’t any problems with any hiss or distortion. The tracks are limited in range, as older basic audio tracks tend to be, but the movie sounds just fine here.
Previous DVD releases were barebones, but Synapse have included some choice extras here including a commentary with the film’s writer/director James Glickenhaus moderated by Temple Of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali. The track opens with, not surprisingly, a discussion of the opening scene which Glickenhaus notes was filmed in California and which lead to one viewer accusing him of stealing footage from Apocalypse Now! He also notes that the dummy killed in the opening scene was made by Stan Winston and how the beheading originally earned the film an ‘immediate X’ and had to be trimmed frame by frame to get the film its R for theatrical play. From here the two discuss pretty much everything that you’d expect them to – from the involvement of various cast members, to what it was like shooting on the streets of New York City, to how events in the newspapers of the day inspired Glickenhaus’ script and many of the ideas seen in the movie. Glickenhaus tells some fun stories about Robert Ginty and Steve James, and talks about working with Christopher George as well. He points out what scenes were shot in Manhattan versus Brooklyn (the scenes that were supposed to be the Bronx were apparently shot in Brooklyn!) versus Harrison, New York and he then talks about the film’s distribution and some of the controversy that surrounded it when it was originally released. He also notes that the original idea going into this movie was to shoot it without any dialogue, noting that you can still watch the movie with the sound off and know what’s going on in the movie and he opens up about the product placement in the movie. Going into a whole lot more detail about the commentary would be doing a disservice to those who haven’t heard it yet but let it suffice to say that despite some minor gaps of silence here and there it’s pretty much invaluable to fans of the film, as Glickenhaus really goes into a lot of detail about this film and its history.
Aside from that, look for the film’s original theatrical trailer (widescreen, HD), a half a dozen TV spots (3:11 worth, to be exact – fullframe, HD – “He doesn’t confuse New York with the battlefield, he knows they’re the same!” – “He’s not a taxi driver and he has no death wish, he’s just an ordinary man they pushed too far!”), some fiery animated menus and chapter stops. Again, this is a combo pack, so it also includes a DVD version of the movie with the same extras.
The Final Word:
While it may have been fairly maligned by critics when it first hit theaters (a quote from Roger Ebert on the back cover calls it ‘sick’!), The Executioner has understandably gone on to earn itself a pretty sizeable cult following and it’s easy to see why. It’s twisted, bloody, nasty and mean and it makes great use of both its fine cast and its awesome locations to build some great atmosphere and solid suspense. Synapse’s Blu-ray finally gives the film a proper home video release and throws in a great commentary track too. Awesome.
Click on the images below for full size Blu-ray screen caps!