In the 1980s, the action movie was king. That hot, heady decade saw the introduction and/or emergence of top-shelf arse-kickers like Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and many, many more, as well as stylish behind-the-camera mayhem masters like John McTiernan, Tony Scott, Walter Hill, James Cameron and others. Several budgetary tiers down from these heavy hitters, however, was a coterie of far less well funded filmmakers, who plied their trade in the B-movie arena, crafting films of an even more aggressive and confrontational bent.
One of the best and most interesting of these directors was James Glickenhaus, still most famous for his shocking 1980 sophomore effort, The Exterminator, one of the bloodiest and best of the striking but short lived urban vigilante action sub-genre that grew out of the zeitgeist success of the Charles Bronson thriller Death Wish. Though films in this sub-genre were certainly rough and tumble (see the likes of Vigilante, Ms. 45, Savage Streets and more for ample bloodstained proof), The Exterminator is several gruesome cuts above.
James Glickenhaus was born in 1950 in New York City, and grew up in the well-to-do area of New Rochelle as the son of a successful business-driven Wall Street family. A movie lover since his early childhood, Glickenhaus eventually studied at The University of California, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Like many directors before him, Glickenhaus kicked off his film career in the field of educational and industrial pictures. He made his theatrical feature debut in 1975 with the barely remembered horror curio The Astrologer, a riff on the then popular concept of religious cults.
Glickenhaus’ next film came five years later with the aforementioned The Exterminator. Gritty, nasty, brutal but utterly compelling, the film follows traumatised Vietnam vet John Eastland (the ashen faced Robert Ginty), who responds with violence (and more violence) when his best buddy is cruelly crippled by a street gang. Eastland rips his way through the criminal underworld, and the film is punctuated with torture, beheadings, shootings, stabbings, and, most memorably, death by meat grinder. Also featuring cult heroes Christopher George, Samantha Eggar and Steve James, and a CIA subplot that excitingly takes the film into paranoid/conspiracy thriller territory, The Exterminator is visceral exploitation filmmaking at its hard hitting best.
“It was a time in which violence was on everybody’s mind, because of the war in Vietnam,” Glickenhaus told The Flashback Files in a long-form retrospective interview about The Exterminator. “And television and film had sanitised violence for a long time. But violence is really unpleasant and I thought I had an obligation to portray it that way. And that was the issue with The Exterminator: he was an average person, not some sort of Dirty Harry, and he was pushed into something and responds as a vigilante. But he has mixed feelings about it. The purpose of the film wasn’t to glorify violence or vigilantism, but to ask questions. What happens in society when it loses the ability to bring people to justice and people take justice into their own hands?”
The film was a surprise hit, and stoked much controversy with its fevered violence and brutality. Using the business acumen that he’d obviously inherited from his Wall Street father, Glickenhaus parlayed the success of the down-and-dirty The Exterminator into a much bigger project. 1982’s The Soldier was a slick, stylishly executed but still tough-minded espionage thriller starring future Wise Guy TV star Ken Wahl. Further and expertly expanding on the paranoid/conspiracy thriller concepts that he’d toyed with in The Exterminator, The Soldier is like a colder, meaner, more violent James Bond film. Now almost completely forgotten as a true Cold War relic, The Soldier is a prime slab of 1980s action chaos.
Glickenhaus’ knack for action was recognised by major Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, with the director tapped to corral the madness on the 1985 Jackie Chan vehicle The Protector, which marked the action hero’s stateside debut. Though exciting, thrilling and well-orchestrated, the film lacks the harder edge of Glickenhaus’ previous films, but still rates as a very strong entry in Jackie Chan’s bulging resume of foot-and-fist action belters. “Golden Harvest said to keep Jackie happy they needed to make an American film,” Glickenhaus has explained of the film. “They were like, ‘We’ll give you total carte blanche, you can do whatever you like when you make a film with him.’”
A fine and wholly under-appreciated actioner, Glickenhaus’ 1988 effort Shakedown (released in Australia as Blue Jean Cop) boasts a great team-up in Peter Weller (Robocop) and Sam Elliott, who play, respectively, a crusading lawyer and a loner narcotics cop. Filled with inventive action and tough talking action (Glickenhaus also scripted, as he did on most of his films), the now barely remembered film delves happily into the sleazy worlds of police corruption and drug dealing, and rates highly in the much maligned Lethal Weapon-inspired buddy cop sub-genre.
In a near collision of The Exterminator and The Soldier, Glickenhaus moved into the 1990s with McBain, ingeniously casting Christopher Walken as the eponymous Vietnam vet, who reassembles his old team of arse-kickers to topple an oppressive South American regime. Tough and aggressive, the film failed at the box office and, like Shakedown, is disappointingly rarely discussed these days. “The stuff that I did was a nuance darker, and everybody wanted heroes, no more anti-heroes,” Glickenhaus has said of his films.
James Glickenhaus took an unusual detour with what would turn out to be his final two directorial efforts, both of which starred his talented young son, Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus. A fine and highly unusual thriller, 1993’s Slaughter Of The Innocents features the inspired crime fighting duo of FBI agent Steven Broderick (Scott Glenn) and his tech-savvy, child genius son, Jesse (Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus). This is not, however, some kind of warm-and-fuzzy family flick, with the pair on the trail of a lunatic, religiously driven serial killer. Placing a child in the middle of such lurid subject matter is a huge risk, but Glickenhaus (clearly influenced by The Silence Of The Lambs) actually makes it work, with Slaughter Of The Innocents an excellent and imaginative low budget thriller.
For his final film, 1995’s Timemaster, Glickenhaus cast his son, Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus, as well as his daughter, Veronica Cameron-Glickenhaus, in the lead roles. A time travelling action comedy also featuring The Karate Kid’s Pat Morita, the film is certainly a not-very-fitting close-out on Glickenhaus’ usually hard hitting directorial career. As well as his own films as writer/director, Glickenhaus also added essentially to the exploitation canon via his production and distribution company SGE, which he formed with producer Leonard Shapiro in 1982. They offered huge support to bizarro horror master Frank Henenlotter (the extraordinary Basket Case series, Frankenhooker), and also released cult faves like Maniac Cop and Red Scorpion.
Unfortunately for lovers of hard edged action films, James Glickenhaus’ love for making movies has been overtaken by his other great passion: racing cars. The one-time writer director now focuses on Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, the automobile company that he founded and now manages. “I had always loved cars, so when I made money from films, I gave half to my dad to invest in Wall Street, and I bought some cars from the other half,” Glickenhaus explained of the shift to Mubi. “And then I realised that my passion was not just collecting cars, but being involved in designing and building and racing, and it sort of morphed from there. It’s been going for about 10 years now. We’re a small company, and we sell about 200 or 300 cars a year and can be profitable and continue racing. My son really wanted to get involved and he is now running the nuts and bolts of the company. I’m absolutely involved in the day-to-day, but I’ve become more of an advisor. To be honest with you, at 71, I certainly wouldn’t be unhappy sitting in Barbados, drinking umbrella cocktails, and racing occasionally, but it’s been really great.”
James Glickenhaus might have found his greatest success behind the wheel of his car company, but we’ll always salute him as the man behind some of the bloodiest and best action movies of the 1980s…
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