Tuesday, January 31, 2012

THE EXTERMINATOR by Peter McCurtin


Reviewed by Paul Talbot and Chris Poggiali

For his second feature film, director/writer James Glickenhaus created the low-budget, brutal vigilante thriller THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), which quickly became a hit with urban grindhouse patrons who were delighted with the skuzzy, twisted movie that went farther than most exploitation epics of the era. Shortly after the film was picked up for U.S. release by Avco Embassy Pictures, the distributor set up a novelization deal. The memorable newspaper ads advised patrons to “Read the Manor paperback original.”

Author Peter McCurtin followed the movie closely as he retold the story of Johnny Eastland, a Vietnam veteran who snaps after his best friend and army buddy is rendered a quadriplegic by the Bronx street gang the Ghetto Ghouls. Calling himself “The Exterminator,” Eastland turns vigilante and utilizes a flamethrower, a meat grinder, an electric carving knife, hungry rats, mercury-laced bullets, and an M-16 rifle to rid the city of numerous thugs (including the Ghetto Ghouls), mobsters, pedophiles, and one highly trained, mafia-employed attack dog. As the colorful back cover copy explains, “John Eastland uses a Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum with an eight-inch barrel. He drills out the tips of his slugs and loads them with mercury. Whey they hit a scumbag’s belly they blow up like a hand grenade. John calls that his rat load.” Meanwhile, the NYPD detective in charge of the Exterminator case, James Dalton, realizes he has a few things in common with the loner vigilante he’s out to bust, and unfortunately gets caught in the crossfire when the CIA meddles in his investigation.

McCurtin (not a pseudonym) was responsible for writing dozens of men’s adventure novels in the 1970s, including three vigilante-themed series -- The Marksman (published by Belmont Tower), The Sharpshooter (Leisure Books), and The Assassin (Dell) -- so this was no doubt a quick and easy paycheck for him. His 1970 novel Mafioso had been the basis for Fernando Di Leo’s THE BOSS (1973), a vicious Eurocrime movie starring Henry Silva and Richard Conte, but with THE EXTERMINATOR he was presented with the flipside experience: writing his own novel from someone else’s feature film. Because Glickenhaus’ screenplay is short on exposition and almost comically devoid of segues, McCurtin was left with plenty of room to expand and create backstory, alter existing situations, and even toss in a few additional supporting characters with their own plot tangents.

For example, in the movie it’s never explained where Eastland gets the flamethrower, machine guns and other weaponry; the viewer just assumes that, like so many other veterans, he brought it all back with him after the war. In the novel, McCurtin points out that Eastland is unlike other veterans because he doesn’t have automatic weapons mothballed in his apartment. The reader is then taken on an eight-page tangent in which Eastland rips off Fordham Road pawnshop owner Shecky Brill, who is something of a legend thanks to his 40-year sideline career as an illegal gun dealer whose customers have included Israel, the IRA, and Dutch Schultz! Eastland walks out of Shecky’s warehouse with M-16’s, S&W .44’s, Schmeissers, commando knives and plenty of ammo.

In the movie, to learn the location of the Ghetto Ghouls’ clubhouse, Eastland uses a blow torch to menace gang member Frankie (Dennis Boutsikaris), leading to the first instance of the Exterminator’s catchphrase, “If you’re lying, I’ll be back.” Frankie survives the scene but is later killed by Eastland after mugging an elderly woman in the park. For the novel, McCurtin plays the blow torch interrogation the same way, but replaces Frankie with a Puerto Rican punk named Vinny, who Eastland guts with a commando knife after learning the whereabouts of the Ghouls hangout. The gang member shot by Eastland after the park mugging is never given a name, so there is no Frankie in the novel.

There’s no catchphrase either, because McCurtin also changes the second scene in which Eastland tells someone, “If you’re lying, I’ll be back.” Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing moment in the movie -- Gino Pontivini being lowered into a large meat grinder and chopped into chuck -- is completely deflated in the novel by having the mobster already dead of a heart attack when the bloodied and furious Eastland returns from his encounter with Pontivini’s security Doberman. If there was a point to this particular revision, it was lost on us.

Otherwise, McCurtin’s pulpy prose perfectly captures the movie’s cynical, downbeat tone. Choice passages include, “There was a fountain of arterial blood and the head fell and bounced” and “Spit was mixed with blood and a pink, frothy bubble formed between his lips and bobbed there for a moment before it broke.” Containing 16 pages of color publicity stills, the novelization of THE EXTERMINATOR is a compelling read and a highly-prized collectible worth seeking out, even for longtime fans who have the film memorized.

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