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Friday, 17 March 2017

Maniac Cop (1988)


Director: William Lustig
Writer: Larry Cohen
Stars: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon, Richard Roundtree, William Smith, Robert Z’Dar and Sheree North


Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

No, this isn’t a politically charged drama about the current state of police violence, even if we have a prominent African American actor in the cast; Richard Roundtree actually plays the police commissioner. Our title character isn’t driven by race, he’s driven by revenge and that places this in an interesting category. It’s a horror movie, first and foremost, but it’s also a revenge flick; that my copy is on the other side of a DVD from The Exterminator isn’t just because James Glickenhaus executive produced this and directed that. And, of course, it’s a product of the late eighties, arguably picking up from RoboCop in 1987 and creating a hilariously surreal trend of mashing up every sub-genre imaginable with cop movies. Every year from this point on brought a fresh new example of Something New and Ridiculous Cop: Psycho Cop in 1989, Vampire Cop and Omega Cop in 1990, Karate Cop and Samurai Cop in 1991, Cyborg Cop in 1993, Scanner Cop in 1994, Gladiator Cop in 1995... and onwards. We’ll ignore Kindergarten Cop, of course, to keep sane.

This certainly looks like a cop movie to begin with, with Officer Cordell putting on his uniform with all its accoutrements in slo-mo as the opening credits roll. We’re in New York, the twin towers very much in evidence in the opening long shot, and Cordell is one of the city’s finest. The problem is that the public’s trust in the boys in blue is being rapidly eroded by a series of brutal murders at the hands of one of them. First up is Cassie Philips, who gets the better of a pair of muggers only to stumble into the wrong cop for help. He promptly lifts her off the ground by her throat and snaps her neck. ‘It was a cop, man,’ the muggers tell the authorities, ‘a big cop!’ And, while there are disbelievers, Frank McCrae, NYPD veteran in the requisite trenchcoat, believes those dumb kids. He doesn’t see how they could have done it and, as the killings continue, he reasons that it’s someone inside the department, not the commissioner’s wishful suggestion that it’s someone merely impersonating a cop in an attempt to discredit the force.

And so we’re off and running. There’s a lot wrong with this film, but the most unfortunate mistake was to cast so many character actors and give them so little to do. Tom Atkins does a capable job as Frank McCrae, but he’s clearly not stretched by anything he’s tasked to do here. Of course, he’s been playing cops since his debut in Frank Sinatra’s The Detective in 1968, so it was surely second nature for him by this point. Richard Roundtree, a decade and a half after Shaft, is also capable as Commissioner Pike but he could play this part in his sleep. Only William Smith as Captain Ripley is really notable, but that’s mostly because he’s more like Michael Rooker here than Michael Rooker would have been. Of course, Rooker had only begun his career two years earlier, while Smith’s goes back to The Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942 when he was a mere nine years old. This highlights how much the former must have paid attention to the work of the latter! Smith is still acting today and his filmography is a history of exploitation cinema.

Now, people don’t tend to think of Maniac Cop as a Tom Atkins movie, even though he’s the lead actor and the focal point for most of it; they think of it as a Bruce Campbell movie. This was early for the Big Chin, coming right after Evil Dead II and before Intruder, so he looks scarily young and he was only starting to realise how his powerful charisma could bolster his nascent acting skills into a magnetic combination. It’s quite obvious that Atkins, Roundtree and Smith could act circles round him without even trying, but his character, Patrolman Jack Forrest, is cheating on his wife with Laurene Landon, whose acting is so awful here that she’d make me look good. Landon is Theresa Mallory, another cop, and her part becomes more important (if less substantial) as the film runs on. I’ve enjoyed her work in guilty pleasures like Hundra and Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold, but she’s embarrassingly bad here and nobody benefits from that more than Campbell, who suddenly feels like Marlon Brando when acting opposite her.
It’s no spoiler to point out that Campbell isn’t the Maniac Cop of the title. I won’t spoil who is, even though it won’t surprise you in the slightest, but Forrest is in the movie to be set up to look like the killer. There have been three deaths thus far, each committed in a different way (the second was a young driver, a little the worse for wear, who’s slashed across the throat then hurled into the windscreen of his own car, while the third was an innocent man drowned in setting concrete), and everyone is suddenly scared of the boys in blue. Ellen Forrest is scared of her own husband, because he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night and never seems to stay home. He’s Campbell’s character, of course, and a strange woman even rings Ellen up to suggest that he’s the killer. ‘He went out again, didn’t he?’ So she follows him, not to work but to a motel, where she discovers his affair with Mallory, waves her gun around, wanders off, gets murdered by the Maniac Cop and is found in the very room in which she found her husband.

So into custody Forrest goes, where he seems to forget about his wife almost instantly. That’s just one awkward part of the script, written by exploitation legend, Larry Cohen. The next is how we’re supposed to expect Forrest to remain the primary suspect as the real murderer continues his spree, starting with Mallory, who’s out working vice in a horrendous wig. When the killer tries to murder her, McCrae shows up and the supernatural angle to the story shows up with him. A dozen bullets to the chest later, he’s gone, apparently into nowhere. He wasn’t breathing, she says. His hands were cold as ice, she says. Suddenly we don’t just have a Maniac Cop on our hands, we have a Zombie Cop, a Voorhees Cop or a Death Cop. Of course, this angle is mostly ignored from this point on, but it did help him to return for two sequels, the imaginatively titled Maniac Cop 2 in 1990 and then Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence in 1993. McCrae even figures out who the killer is but apparently fails to tell anyone, so Forrest stays behind bars.
Fortunately, here we get the best performance in the film, courtesy of Sheree North, sadly the least well known of the stars, who deserves the credit even if her character, Sally Noland, is quite frankly the only one with any opportunity for an actor. She was a notable character actor, even if her greatest claim to fame was being pushed by her studio as ‘the new Marilyn Monroe’. Her work should speak for itself, from major films like Charley Varrick, The Shootist and Telefon to memorable television roles like Lou Grant’s girlfriend and Kramer’s mum; she was nominated for two primetime Emmys. Here, she’s a cop who’s stuck indoors working a desk job because she wears a big brace on her mangled leg and walks with the aid of a cane. Her first, most subdued scene is fantastic and her more hysterical ones are superb too. She’s invested enough in the story to be believable when she shrieks in abject fear like a madwoman, unlike Landon who somehow forgets she’s a cop and turns into a random slasher movie victim to be.

It’s around this point that the grand mystery is unveiled, to nobody’s surprise, and we can shift from the cops trying to figure out whodunit to the cops attempting to stop whodunit from, well, doing it any more. For all that this is a horror movie, the New York backdrop is shot well enough to make this feel like a seventies throwback to pictures like Dirty Harry. It’s fair to suggest that Cohen took films like that and applied a little bit of realism, asking what would actually happen to a cop that tough and uncompromising and deciding that he’d be discarded by City Hall and sent to Sing Sing, where you can take over and imagine what happens next. If that could be a movie all on its own, this film is the sequel that acknowledges that it’s the late eighties and realises that everyone’s renting horror flicks with outrageous titles on VHS from the shelves of Blockbuster, so shifts firmly into that mode and throws in a new star with a big chin for good measure. Why it didn’t do better at the time, I have absolutely no idea.
Eventually, we get to why I’m reviewing it on 17th March. It’s St. Patrick’s Day today, the one day a year when every American is suddenly of Irish heritage. Nobody pinches the Maniac Cop for not wearing green, but everything does come down during the big St. Patrick’s Day parade through the streets of New York. Well, sort of. We veer away from it pretty quickly, but for a while it’s all kilts and bagpipes and reporter Sam Raimi talking up how dangerous it is this year. Apparently, bomb threats have been called in, among scores of threats against the police, but they’re going ahead anyway with the 50th anniversary parade. It would seem that nobody told Larry Cohen that this particular St. Patrick’s Day parade predates the signing of the Declaration of Independence by fourteen years! 1988’s parade would have been the 227th, a number unimaginable here in Arizona, a state so young that we’d just passed three quarters of a century. Maybe Cohen thought fifty years was more believable to us westerners.

There are so many possibilities for a movie shooting during a real parade, especially one of this size, but it doesn’t seem like Lustig got the permits, so he settles for having extras wave protest signs behind attendees at the real parade. I wonder if anyone realised what was actually happening at the time; did staff go out to have these real people sign waivers? Cohen doesn’t even throw in any ‘dying the river red’ jokes, mostly wasting the atmosphere while our heroes and villain chase off to the docks for their showdown. At least, while obviously scrimping on the budget, the production does show that it has some balls here. The chase scene feels like it’s older than 1988 because the vehicles are clearly moving really fast and the unknown stuntman who doubles for Campbell as he backflips off a flying paddywagon (well it is St. Patrick’s Day) into the river is really doing that. There isn’t any CGI and there aren’t any dummies. That’s old school filmmaking shot on 35mm to boot and we appreciate that immensely.
And, as we set up for the inevitable sequel, we think back and realise that as underwhelming as this script is, as little opportunity as it gives its stars and as stunningly awful as Laurene Landon is in the picture, there are a bunch of little details that made it seem OK anyway. Real stunts are just part of it. There’s real physical make-up work, especially on the face of Robert Z’Dar, a man whose chin doesn’t just trump Campbell’s but challenges American Dad’s. There’s real IT, the new-fangled computer gizmos the cops are struggling to figure out being greenscreen antiques talking to kludgy databases rather than the idiotic eternal zoom machines we get today. We have a real records room where cops go to pull out clippings from newspapers. There’s an electronic score from Jay Chattaway that doesn’t feel embarrassing almost thirty years on; instead it just feels appropriate. Even the poster works well, with a cheap but memorable tagline: ‘You have the right to remain silent... forever.’

Surprisingly, Maniac Cop didn’t do particularly well in 1988. It only made half its budget back at the box office, but gradually built a reputation as a cult film. Having so many cult names involved surely can’t have hurt: Campbell remains a huge cult star today, but many are also aware of Atkins, Landon, Roundtree, Smith and Z’Dar, not to mention writer Cohen and, to a degree, director Lustig. That only leaves Sheree North, of the top billed cast, and she deserves to be much better known than she is today. Sam Raimi isn’t hard to recognise, but the eagle-eyed will also notice George ‘Buck’ Flower in a tiny role, director William Lustig in a cameo and maybe even his uncle, the boxer Jake LaMotta, the Raging Bull, who plays a detective. I didn’t see him, but he’s there somewhere. It’s the names more than anything, but also the genre merging that has helped this live on. Just like its title character, it refuses to die and, beyond the two sequels, there’s still talk of a remake, which could actually be timely and appropriate. Watch this space.

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