Maniac Cop (1988)
“He Prefers To Kill, Instead Of Protect”
Director: William Lustig
Cast: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon
Synopsis: In New York City, a man in a cop’s uniform starts killing people for no apparent reason.
Maniac Cop is a Larry Cohen movie, which at least gives us an immediate insight into what to expect from it in terms of quality and technical proficiency. With a few notable exceptions, the bulk of Cohen’s output as writer-producer-director, is of exploitation pictures which are superior to the bottom-feeders of the genre, but are a step or two below the level necessary to acquire mainstream respectability. Cohen’s movies are all rough edges, like sculptures that have an identifiable shape but lack the fine details that make them worth looking at. Maniac Cop is one of his better ones in terms of storyline, and has acquired a cult status thanks largely to its classic exploitation cast and the way it taps into our fascination with (and dread of) the sudden inexplicable subversion of supposedly inviolable institutions, in particular those which are supposed to serve and protect us. A cop who kills the innocent is akin to an earthquake — a force that destabilises the previously solid foundations upon which our society depends.
Maniac Cop opens with a young woman (Jill Gatsby) fighting off an attempted mugging/rape by a couple of street thugs before fleeing into the arms of a uniformed policeman. Rather than protecting the girl, however, the cop throttles her to death. The following day, the two thugs are arrested, and Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins — Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Striking Distance) believes their claims that the girl was murdered by a cop. His suspicions are strengthened when a driver is murdered by a cop in front of his girlfriend. Public hysteria quickly mounts, with an innocent police officer being shot down by a terrified woman motorist, which in turn brings huge pressure to bear on McCrae to find the killer. His suspicions fall on officer Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) when Jack’s wife, Ellen (Victoria Catlin) is murdered after discovering her husband in bed with another woman, fellow cop Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon — The Stuff), especially when he reads entries from Ellen’s diary in which she has written that she suspects her husband of being the maniac cop.
Maniac Cop is directed by William Lustig, another denizen of the world of exploitation, who is perhaps more deserving of his status as such than Cohen. Lustig made his name directing the low-budget slasher flick Maniac in 1980, but his career has gone nowhere since the 1990s, and he now seems to spend most of his time producing those featurettes you find amongst the extras on DVDs. It’s fair to say that Maniac Cop would have been a better film with someone else at the helm, because Lustig’s direction bears all the hallmarks of a filmmaker who lacks a firm grasp on even its rudimentary techniques. The acting is variable, with the likes of Bruce Campbell and Tom Atkins faring a lot better than actors lower down the cast list — but what a cast it is: as well as exploitation regulars Atkins and Campbell we have William Smith (Falconetti from the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man) as a shaven-headed, hard-bitten police captain, Richard ‘Shaft’ Roundtree as a politically-motivated police commissioner, Sheree North as a physically handicapped colleague of McCrae’s, and Robert Z’Dar as the title character.
For fans of exploitation movies, Maniac Cop should provide some quality entertainment, and is just about good enough to keep viewers used to more mainstream movies watching. It’s stupid and it makes no sense — what exactly is the indestructible Maniac Cop? A zombie? A ghost? Cohen never takes the time to make it clear — but it has an energy and enthusiasm that pulls it through its shakier moments.
(Reviewed 19th February 2014)