Sunday, November 6, 2011

Maniac Cop (1988)

Written by: Larry Cohen
Directed by: William Lustig
Starring: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Robert Z'Dar

One of the first orders of business when I and my compatriots from the Brotherhood of Bad Movies arrived at college was to ask around about record/movie stores in the area. Granted, Waverly, Iowa isn't exactly a metropolis, but Cedar Falls is also a college town and Waterloo is a relatively large city for the area. With all this clustered together, you'd think there would have been more than one used bookstore (near the UNI campus, now closed), one independent record store (a couple doors down from the bookstore, also closed), and a minor franchise used CD/DVD store (closed just recently, leaving Best Buy and Barnes & Noble as the only shopping options in the whole area).

CD's Plus, the small franchise shop, was quite the gold mine when we first found it. It waned over the years, each trip growing more depressing until we went there basically out of some misplaced sense of nostalgia and that little glimmer of hope that maybe this would be the time, only to walk out empty handed yet again. But those first few years were great, and one of the things I always remember is this sun-bleached clamshell case VHS copy of Maniac Cop that sat on the shelf until they day they quit carrying VHS.

I don't know exactly why I never bought it. It's a movie that almost every horror fan has heard of, but at the time was unavailable on the market and not very easy to find. It wasn't a lack of interest – after all, it had Bruce Campbell in it. I'd heard it spoken of by classmates over the years and remember hearing it was pretty gruesome and disturbing – although by now I think most of you know I'm not exactly shy about such things. And yet, I felt almost leery of it. It had an aura about it, somehow. I'm sure at some point most of you have had a movie you felt that way about, surrounded by mystery and seeming, for whatever reason, different and maybe a little forbidden.

Well, the aura has been dissipated and as it turns out, it wasn't really deserved. Or not in the way I described above, anyway. But I think I can understand how I perceived it to have such a nasty reputation, despite the fact that it's not particularly gory or unsettling. We'll get to that in a minute. First, the story.

Detective Frank McCrae (the inimitable Tom Atkins) has been involved in several homicide cases recently that are starting to make him believe the stories about a rogue killer cop may be true. The police commissioner and several other major New York City politicians don't want him spreading panic, and try to pin the murders on officer Jack Forrest (the also inimitable Bruce Campbell), who was recently discovered by his wife to be having an affair with another officer. When said wife turns up dead hours after discovering the affair, and is found during the investigation to have been keeping a scrapbook of the rogue cop killings because she thought Jack may have been responsible, putting Jack away looks like an easy out.

McCrae isn't convinced, and with the help of Forrest and Theresa Mallory, Forrest's lover, discovers that not only is the real rogue cop a man by the name of Matt Cordell, but Matt was imprisoned as a fall guy in a political scandal several years ago, and killed in prison. Now McCrae, Forrest, and Mallory not only have to clear Forrest's name, but figure out how to stop a revenge-driven zombie the rest of the police force refuses to admit even exists.

This is a real odd duck of a movie. From that description, it sounds like a pretty straightforward slasher flick. To get the full effect, you just have to see it for yourself, but it the slasher resemblance is really superficial at best. It plays out more like a proto-slasher giallo, with lots of stalking around in shadows and gloved (although they're white cotton instead of black leather in this case) hands claiming their victims. Virtually all the main characters being police also makes it closer kin to the Italian thrillers than Jason Voorhees and his ilk.

There is relatively little violence or gore, and what there is is peppered in a plot that is much more murder mystery than masked maniac shredding through a predictable roster of victims. And then there's the way it looks. It may have a giallo plot with a supernatural slasher villain, but the thing looks and feels like a late 70's-early 80's American grindhouse flick. The grimy, decaying New York atmosphere and grainy film look probably contributing a lot to people thinking it's a much more unpleasant movie than it really is.

Then there's the creative pedigree. The movie was written and produced by Larry Cohen, which makes me wonder why it doesn't make a little more sense. Matt Cordell is presented as being prone to excessive force, but he wasn't a madman when he was alive, and his motive for returning from the grave is revenge on those who incarcerated him wrongly and got him killed. Why, then, is he murdering innocent civilians? And for that matter, it's never made all that clear how he managed to come back from the dead at all, why he's in cahoots with the police department's file clerk and how he came to be so, and how he manages to get in and out of the police building without being noticed. After all, a guy who's nearly 7 feet tall and has a face like a catcher's mitt made of raw beef isn't exactly going to blend in. Cohen is usually a very strong writer, which makes the massive plot holes all the more frustrating. I'd blame it on lack of control, but he was also the main producer.

And then there's the other part of why I believe the movie's reputation got to be what it is. Director William Lustig is responsible for another movie with “maniac” in the title, and that flick really does deserve all the nasty reputation it has and then some. It's entirely possible that some people have confused this with his Maniac over the years, and I can see why people would be a little squeamish about that one, which is of course why I love it dearly.

There you have it. Not a bad movie, not a great one, and certainly not deserving of being held in awe. It doesn't really fit comfortably in any one genre, and in the end is more frustrating than anything as a collection of half-formed good ideas and inexplicable mistakes and plot holes from two filmmakers who we know can do better.

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