How do some films attain cult status? Sometimes it’s because the film housed an idea that sparked a large enough group’s interest. Sometimes it can be because the film is that special kind of inept that we just love to laugh at and with. Sometimes it’s because the blu-ray for the film has a quote printed in it that just reads “Is this the movie where someone’s dropped in a meat grinder? – YouTube comment on The Exterminator trailer”. You see, sometimes, such as with today’s review, it just takes having one scene. But what about the rest of the film? Click below for The Film Dump’s 4th birthday special review.
The Exterminator is one of 4,729 early 80s, post Vietnam, vigilante killer movies. In it a Vietnam Vet named John Eastland (Robert Ginty) is attempting to make life work in New York with his service buddy Mike (Steve James). They went through some shite together in ‘Nam. Or at least a large quarry like place with palm trees made to look like ‘Nam anyway. One of their platoon was beheaded by a Viet Cong soldier and they narrowly made it out with their lives. The beheading effect was quite cool though so they should just get over it. Anyway, Mike gets attacked and paralysed so John goes to get revenge on the scumbags that did it. That happens about 15-20 minutes into the film so after that, as he’s clearly at a loose end, plus the film still has nearly 80 minutes to go, John just keeps killing any of New York’s criminal element he happens to stumble across.
It’s literally like that. He leaves the gang members responsible for hurting his friend get their faces chewed off by rats… and a few minutes later he’s killing all crime. There’s a sequence in-between where John forces his crooked boss to give up some money to help Mike’s family and right after that John has apparently sent a manifesto to the news networks announcing his one man war on crime. By the way, the boss guy owns a meat packing plant and he’s the one that gets put in the meat grinder. That sequence is actually kinda badass. John gets the guy to give up his keys and warns him that if he hasn’t told him anything important he’ll go in the grinder. When John gets to the house there’s a vicious guard dog he ends up having to kill. The next scene just has John walking into the room where his crooked boss is suspended and he calmly, without saying a word, just starts up the meat grinder and leaves. I like that. I like silent badassery.
That’s actually, I’d say, the film’s main redeeming feature. That John is such a silent badass while still being an everyman. Can’t hear a bloody word he says half the time and he kinda looks like a blonde Paul McCartney, but it’s still a decent way to portray this sort of character. All vigilante’s need a rival cop and here we have Detective James Dalton (Christopher George). James Dalton seems rather unbothered by the hunt for The Exterminator. So much so he spends most of the film dating a nurse at the hospital Mike is recovering at… who never interacts with Mike, so… yeah… why is she there? Oh also, James like to cook hotdogs by sticking forks in either end that are attached to the wire from a desk lamp. That’s a scene that happens. See, I know Syd Field and the like suggest you always have your characters doing something, so they aren’t just standing around talking… but cooking a hotdog with an electrical current from a lamp? Well, I guess it’s a something. Just, why is it a something?
A large problem with the film is that it does a spectacularly poor job of progressing the story. The director (James Glickenhaus) aimed to have the film have as little dialogue as possible. That’s great and all but you should have enough to serve the story. Or even the scenes you need to depict the shift in John’s mindset. There is no gradual breaking point for him or escalation in his methods. The very first thing John does is threaten a gang member with a flamethrower he got from God knows where. By the way, the posters and artwork for The Exterminator almost always feature a figure clad in black with a flamethrower. That never happens. At all. In the sequel he wears a boiler mask thing. Probably actually uses a flamethrower too. Where was I? Oh yeah… plot progression. Stuff just happens. The film is full of “and thens” rather than “therefores” and “buts” which is just poor storytelling. All his targets are just stumbled upon. The sequences usually have some structure, but there’s no structure bringing them together.
The result of all this structure trouble is a film that becomes quite painfully boring. You’ll disconnect when the story just fails to keep you up to pace in a manner that is effective. A story can be as subtle as you like but you actually have to tell the story. Not just point out a series of events. There’s nearly a full hour where John doesn’t mention Mike and we are not caught up on his condition. Suddenly, near the film’s end, John visits Mike, who’s still bandaged up the same as he was earlier, and agrees to turn of Mike’s life support machine. Mike isn’t in a coma by the way. He’s awake. We’ve only been told that he’s paralysed from the neck down. Not that he’s hanging on by a thread. Mike responds to conversations by blinking, showing awareness. For some reason we’re never told Mike just had to die here. This has no impact on the story as far as John goes. He tells Mike’s wife that mike died… and that’s it. Then the finale happens. Which isn’t even a finale. John tells James to meet him at a crane for a finale showdown. They meet on a boat. James is shot by a CIA agent and John falls off the boat and the film ends.
So does The Exterminator earn it’s cult movie status? It certainly has that meat grinder scene. It also has a paedophile getting shot in the gut… so that’s good. It also has a very long scene of John putting mercury in bullets. And a motivating factor in Mike that is forgotten about. And a complete lack of anything resembling coherence. And man… it’s so BORING! But I kinda like some elements. As mentioned, John needs use his outside voice, but he has that quiet killer thing down. I feel like with a few tweaks to add coherence, maybe some better performances, The Exterminator could have been something decent. Maybe not great, or even good. But at least some sort of low budget alternative to Death Wish. A lot of films have done this exact story and most have done it better. The Exterminator only gets a few things even close to right. So, no… I don’t feel like it deserves its cult status. It’s also not inept enough to be laughed at and it certainly has no ideas of its own. It has a sequel though… I should watch that.