For those of us for whom the 1980s was a defining decade – not because of nostalgia, but because said decade made up the bulk of our formative years – there’s something very appealing about the style of horror that was released around that time. This was after the video nasty scares of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when horror became more accepted (but never truly mainstream). It was a time that can be seen in the improved special effects, in the undermining of accepted Reaganist values, and heard in the very distinctive soundtracks of the era.
Some of these films have since been accepted as classics and have found a wider audience – films like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Poltergeist – whilst others have become cult favourites – Shocker or the House series.
One film which falls firmly in the latter category was the Larry Cohen produced Maniac Cop, which flopped on its initial release but, because of a growing cult following, still managed to produce two sequels.
The premise is simple – a murderous cop is loose on the streets of New York. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to his killing – he just chooses random subjects – but seems to want to have witnesses. The police are in bit of a panic because they are, rightly, worried about what the public are going to think and how it will impact trust in the NYPD. To confuse matters, Ellen Forrest – the wife of one cop – has been receiving phone calls accusing her husband, Jack, of being the killer. Ellen follows Jack one night, only to discover that he’s not the killer but instead, has been having an affair with another cop, Theresa Mallory. The wife is then dispatched by the maniac cop and Jack is accused of the murders. Although the lead detective, Frank McCrae is soon convinced that Jack is innocent, the brass think otherwise. McCrea and Mallory join forces to solve the mystery and bring the real killer to justice.
Described like this, Maniac Cop, doesn’t really sound like a horror but more like a run of the mill detective thriller. This, however, is far from the truth. Firstly, this is a slasher film and the titular bad guy is no different to Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees – serial killers shrouded in mystery who possess almost supernatural strength and abilities.
The murders are effectively gruesome, especially the knife across the throat, and there are a few jump scares which is exactly what you want from a film like this. Most of this happens in the second half which is a great improvement on an almost sedentary first half.
McCrea discovers that the killer is Matt Cordell, an ex-officer who was sent to Sing-Sing for police brutality. Whilst in prison, Cordell was attacked in the showers by fellow cons whom he had once arrested. The cons mutilate Cordell and leave him for dead, but the prison’s doctor discover that he’s still alive and help Cordell fake his death. This whole back story is more than a bit flimsy and not really all that important. Also a bit questionable are the make-up effects on Cordell’s mutilated face. Throughout most of the film, his face isn’t shown and is hidden in darkness or obscured from view, and only revealed in its gory glory towards the end. Unfortunately, this is one area that lets the film down as the scars look like they’ve just been stuck to his face.
The cast, whilst not exactly asked to do a lot, are mostly fine. The performances in the first half do sometimes seem a little wooden, but I think the main reason for this is Larry Cohen’s stilted script. The ever reliable Tom Atkins is, predictably, as reliable as ever, and Richard Roundtree, who plays Commissioner Pike, is asked to do what he does best, shout loudly and indignantly like every other police chief of the decade. Jack is played by legendary cult actor Bruce Campbell, who is better than the role deserves but not as good as he had been before or since. The main problem with his performance is that, for such a charismatic actor, the role lacks any humour whatsoever.
Robert Z’Dar plays Cordell, a role that required him to look menacing but little more. There are also cameos by the Raging Bull himself, Jake La Motta; the director William Lustig, and Sam Raimi who is briefly seen as a reporter.
So why write about a film that’s over 30 years old and has never really made a huge impact? Why take a film with obvious issues seriously? Firstly, as indicated by some of my other reviews here, I’m a fan of ‘80s horror – probably more so today than I was back then. Secondly, despite the problems with the movie, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun and retains a certain nostalgic charm.
There are also some valid points to be made about the fragility of trust between law enforcement and the public, especially in the late ‘80s New York, when the city was far from being the safest environment to live in. There was a campaign a few years ago in the UK, trying to discourage parents from telling young children that, if they misbehave, the police will be called to speak to them. The issue with this is, when the child grows up, they won’t see police as someone to go to when in need, but as someone to be weary of. In Maniac Cop, this trust breaks down quickly and members of the public are seen talking to camera – vox pop style – about how they no longer trust the boys in blue. This is not the intention of the film, but it’s an interesting tangent that gives the film a little more weight that it may have otherwise had.
Finally, there has been a lot of talk in recent years about the lack of recognition by the Oscars for the work of stunt men and women. It’s a crucial aspect of action filmmaking and, although the introduction of CGI has transformed the way films are made and the scope that filmmakers can now achieve, the role of the stunt person remains crucial. Many believe that Best Stunt Work should be a recognised category at the Oscars. In 1988, I would imagine that one of the stunts that may have been in contention would be the final moments of Maniac Cop.
Cordell is trying to get away in a van and Jack is holding on to the open door. The road soon runs out and the van shoots off the end of a pier and into the water. As it does so, a stuntman (who barely has a passing resemblance to Bruce Campbell) jumps to the side landing in the water only a few feet away from the plunging van. This is stunt work at its most daring. If the stunt man had fallen only a few feet to his right, or if the van had tipped to the left, it could have resulted in serious injury or death. But this is what stunt people do, week in, week out, and although the final stunt alone isn’t enough to make the film a must-watch, it’s still a fitting end to an entertaining film.
If you are going to revisit it, Maniac Cop is one of those films that you may want to disengage your brain to enjoy. As with a lot of ‘80s horror, it doesn’t stand up to too much analysis, but is still a fun 90 minutes. The old cliché of ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ certainly applies to Maniac Cop. Some may assert that this is a good thing, but for fans of all things ‘80s, this distinctive style of horror is a unique and fun subgenre and Maniac Cop is as good an example of any.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 6/10
Maniac Cop is available on Blu-Ray courtesy of Arrow Video.