Trivia Strangely though, this is quite a tough one to find in its full uncut format, but it’s worth it.
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Maniac Cop (1987)
24th Mar 04
Like many a Slasher movie, Maniac Cop opens with a good old-fashioned murder. A pretty young waitress has just finished her late shift at a local dingy drinking hole and is setting off on her walk home. As she turns down a nameless back alley, two young punks jump her. Being the spunky little thing that she is she fights them off with her handbag and escapes, with the whole incident conveniently being witnessed by a guy across the street putting his trash out.
She runs and the punks give chase, but rounding the next corner she spies the silhouette of a cop. Salvation, you’d think, but nothing could be further from the truth. In a blur of ambiguous camera angles and hideous 80s synthesizer music, the mysterious cop figure lifts her clean off the ground and strangles her to death while the frightened punks make a run for it.
Now with that trash guy as a witness it seems to the NYPD like this is a simple case of a mugging going too far. Nobody believes the punks' story of a killer cop, nobody that is except washed up police lieutenant Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins). He's seen the body and the pathologist's report and doesn't for a minute believe that some young punks could carry out a strangulation of that intensity. His protests, however, fall on deaf ears, most noticeably his boss's. Remember, in movies nobody believes a washed up cop until the body count hits a certain level, and that’s exactly what happens here. While the bureaucrats argue amongst themselves (much to McCrae’s anguish), our mysterious killer paints the town red, so to speak.
But despite a persistent killing spree, and despite the fact that the Maniac Cop seems to intentionally always leave at least one witness alive, McCrae's superiors still want to keep a lid on things. McCrae, on the other hand, has different ideas. Convinced the public has a right to know what's going on, he leaks the whole story to an eager young journalist ex-girlfriend, who laps it up. Hell, she even coins the phrase ‘Maniac Cop’.
But this is where things start to get interesting. With 'Maniac Cop on the streets!' style headlines dominating the front page, the whole city becomes crazy-cop paranoid. Citizens begin to arm themselves accordingly and seemingly out of nowhere the story takes a detour away from the obvious.
The next sequence, for example, is between a cop on the beat and an old lady in a car. Naturally, the scene is delivered with the same amount of tension as all the previous encounters, i.e. with some clever film making trickery hiding the identity of the cop, begins as you’d expect with the cop approaching the civilian in question. This little old lady, however, has no intention of becoming the next victim of ‘that Maniac Cop on the news’ and surprisingly takes the law into her own hands. She pulls a Saturday night special out of her handbag and before you know it we have one dead cop, on dead innocent cop. It looks like NYPD have a serious problem on their hands.
So, with the plot thickening up nicely, and with no clue as to the identity of the Maniac Cop, Bruce Campbell is ushered onto the set. Bruce plays Jack Forrest, a beat cop with marriage problems who has started working a few ‘extra shifts’, if you know what I mean. He’s introduced as he’s buckling up for another night ‘on the job’, much to the protests of his wife who doesn’t understand why he’s working so many late shifts. “You’re the one who dropped out of therapy!” screams Jack as he walks out, slamming the door and leaving his wife distraught.
Things don’t get much better for her either, as now the phone rings and a mystery caller tells her that Jack is the Maniac Cop! Is it true; is Bruce Campbell the killer? Has he gone to commit another murder right now? Should she go follow him to see for herself, or is that too dangerous? Could her life possibly get any worse?
As far as downtown 80s back drops go, you can't beat New York City. It's grimy, it's dirty, it looks good in the rain and the buildings all have those cool fire escapes on the outside which come in real handy for filming chase sequences in cop thrillers. San Francisco may well have been the hip location in the 70s - blame McQueen and Eastwood for that - but a decade later there was nowhere else to be. It comes as no surprise then that that's exactly where genre stalwarts William Lustig and Larry Cohen choose to set the highly underrated Maniac Cop. I doubt anywhere else would have done the movie justice.
Part Slasher movie, part cop thriller, director William Lustig steals what he needs from both genres with varying degrees of success. Having tucked the gruesome Maniac under his belt a few years early, Lustig is obviously comfortable filming the darker side of horror. Each scene of the Maniac Cop pursuing and dispatching his prey is rife with shock cutaways that build tension nicely. The inevitable gory conclusion each time should also be enough for anyone, even without the help of Tom Savini this time around. Suffice to say I'll now think twice before getting out of my car just because some copper tells me too. And go near still wet sidewalk cement again? You can forget that.
It is, however, not the director but the actors that make Maniac Cop, as Cohen managed to assemble a veritable who’s who of contemporary B-movie stars. Tom Atkins revels in his role as the burnt out cop, a role he’s played many times before with equal clarity in movies such as Halloween III, The Fog and most recently Night of The Creeps. Richard Roundtree - yes Shaft himself - for once plays a Police chief and seems to have fun doing so. Laurene Landon, star of Hundra and Robert Z’Dar from Cherry 2000 and Tango and Cash appear prominently, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Bruce Campbell. With the recent Evil Dead II being hailed as a classic, the big BC was at the height of his popularity and practically guaranteed this film a cult audience. It’s therefore interesting and a little sad that Lustig didn’t allow Bruce to add a little more of his trademark physical comedy to the role of Jack Forrest. As a straight actor, Campbell is less believable since it’s almost impossible to look at the guy without thinking of Ash.
And there are one or two other areas of concern. As with many an 80s Slasher icon, the Maniac Cop seems to have developed an unlikely sense of invincibility. How he achieved this I’m not too sure, but I do know that by the late 80s the idea that a Slasher movie bad guy could take hit after hit and still keep coming was already a bit of a cliche. It dates the film terribly, but I'm afraid that's nothing compared to the predictably ambiguous ending. It’s a real franchise building sell-out and is a disappointingly hackneyed finale to what is otherwise a seriously satisfying movie.
So, let’s wrap this up. Maniac Cop is a lot of fun to watch if you can get over all the little things wrong with it. It has ugly dated hair dos, bizarrely inflated shoulder pads and grating, over dramatic synthesizer music that just screams 80s, but the film zips along at such a frantic pace that you can’t help but enjoy yourself. The plot seems to have no qualms about shifting character focus quite radically and you’ll be surprised who actually makes it to the end of the running time in one piece, but that’s nothing we’re not used to in this beloved genre of ours. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly was to mine, not least because I’ll watch anything with a Sam Raimi cameo in it (Spies Like Us anyone?)
Versions My Hong Kong DVD has burned in Cantonese subtitles, but I hardly noticed them. I did notice the plot wrecking close up of the Maniac Cop on the back of the case, but that’s another story…