During the rapid rise of the slasher film in the early ’80s, all matters of macabre angles were explored. We got psychotic sons (and their equally unhinged mothers), insane groundskeepers, nutty janitors and other school-related staff, as well as various crazy parents, daughters, and distant relatives. By the latter part of the decade, it appeared the potential villain pool had pretty much run dry. Then along came Larry Cohen and his calculated collaborator, director William Lustig. Hoping to breathe some new life into the standard slice and dice, they decided on a rather unique approach to their terror – what if it was the supposed ‘good guys’ who were behind the killings?…in this case, a revenge minded NYC policeman. The results were the ridiculous good Maniac Cop (new to Blu-ray from Synapse Films), a scary movie anomaly that’s as unusual in 2011 as it was in 1988.
The streets of Manhattan are alive with anxiety as a serial killer is on the loose – and it looks like the culprit is either a member of the city’s finest…or someone disguised as one. While long suffering detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, his superiors already have a suspect in mind. He is young gun Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) who is having marital problems. In fact, he is having an affair with fellow officer Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon). Still, even while under surveillance, the murders continue and some in the general public are taking matters into their own hands. Turns out, there’s a connection to a celebrated super-cop Matt Cordell (Robert Z’Dar) who supposedly died in prison and a handicapped policewoman (Sheree North) who may or may not know the truth about what really happened all those years ago.
With its seedy, pre-Disneyfied Manhattan feel and creative polish behind the lens, Maniac Cop is an excellent post-modern B-movie. It ripples with a real sense of place and, even without the excessive gore that tends to define the genre, solidly sells its scares. Thanks to Cohen, who treats the material with a careful combination of realism and horror necessity, it manages to find a way to enliven a dying concept while staying solidly within his own designs. It is clear from the various conversations and set-pieces within the film that the script wants to challenge the notion of policemen as helpful and trusting. By making the villain a ex-officer who was railroaded into confinement because of corruption behind the scenes, we get both sides of the situation.
Granted, Cordell’s “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude made him an easy target to begin with, but to end up treated as prey by many he helped put away creates a core element of injustice that the viewer can get behind. While the resulting ‘maniac cop’ doesn’t have a right to seek revenge on the general public, the desire to put those who wronged him in their mandated place is a fine movie motive. Add in the issues with McCrae, the problems facing Forrest and his gal pal Mallory, and you’ve got a decent diversion toward the inevitable conclusion. It’s not a question of red herrings or gathering clues. It’s the regular slasher situation – provide a victim pool and then wait to see who winds up still alive.
The acting really helps deliver on the premise. Atkins is one of those classic character actors who looks as disgruntled and tired as his character appears. He comes across like a world weary policeman, and when he’s not walking the walk, he’s definitely talking the talk. Campbell, who was still rising thanks to his work with Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead films, is also good as the put upon suspect who’s only guilty of sexual indiscretion. Paired well with Landon (always a likeable direct to video presence from the era), they make a team you can cheer for. Yet the best work here is probably done by Z’Dar, though he is never really seen outside the finale. Like those who play Jason Voorhees behind the mask, the trained method actor finds a way to make his lumbering physicality as sinister as possible.
As for Lustig, he does a decent job of playing into the expectations of the fanbase. There are certain beats that have to be anticipated and met, as well as certain sidelines and sudden shocks. Again, thanks to MPAA mandated cuts, the bloodletting we imagine, especially in the prison and pre-conclusion policeman massacre, is more or less left off screen. It makes for a weird experience. As the gun muzzle explodes, or the knife finds a vein, there is no gore provided. Instead, we find ourselves reliving the ‘70s sentiment toward fear. Indeed, Maniac Cop is all about old school atmosphere and tone. Yes, there is a bit of gratuity here and there, but for the most part, the movie lives by its ambience, not its atrocities.
In fact, when everything comes together, when you merge the excellent locations and backdrops with the winning performances and expert direction, Maniac Cop succeeds. It’s so well done that is creates its own macabre mythology. The character of Cordell and his long simmering vendetta would indeed spawn two additional movies – Maniac Cop 2 and Maniac Cop III: Badge of Honor. Yet there is also a feeling here of semi-incompleteness. With a foundation as ripe and resilient as this, with acting that can really accentuate the dread, and a seemingly endless array of murderous possibilities, what is merely good should be great.
In fact, Maniac Cop is one of those films where, the minute you hear the title, you know certain things are going to happen. When they don’t, or when they don’t completely, your tendency is to forgive. Because the slasher is no work of art to begin with, any creative offshoot is appreciated, no matter what it’s lacking. Had it been a bravura splatterfest, a nonstop flood of grue and offal, we’d probably not respond to its other elements. Because the sluice is more subtle, the filmmaking has a chance to shine – and in the case of this cult favorite, it does.