Thursday, April 28, 2016

Maniac Cop

Wow. What a cast. Maniac Cop (1988) assembles quite the collection of 80s B-Movie actors: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Robert Z'Dar, Richard Roundtree, William Smith. Hell, just having Campbell and Z'Dar is something to be proud of; it's a titanic battle of the chins.

Written by Larry Cohen and directed by William Lustic, Maniac Cop is a late-to-the-party slasher with a neat conceptual hook: the killer is a uniformed police officer going after people in New York City. The movie demonstrates this with a nifty opening scene that instantly has you paying attention. A woman walking home runs away from muggers and spots a cop. She runs to him for help. He responds by breaking her neck.

Maniac Cop is exploitation fare through and through, but Cohen and Lustig are much too inventive and clever to settle for low-grade schlock. As with a number of their other movies, the two imbue the film with sharp wit, dark humor, and potent socio-political subtext that's still relevant today. On its most fundamental level, this is a slasher movie: a psycho killer going around cutting people up after a horrible event in the past physically and mentally scarred him, but Cohen and Lustig give us more than that.

By making the killer a cop, the film adds an element of paranoia and conspiracy. If someone dressed as a police officer was killing people, how would you be able to tell if an officer is on the up-and-up or the killer? Would you still want to call 911? Detective McRae (Atkins, naturally) says people trust cops, they obey the uniform. If an officer tells you to step out of your vehicle or walk down a dark alley, or do anything that might leave you vulnerable, you're supposed to obey. To protect and serve, right?

Of course, having a killer in the ranks is bad PR for the police force, so the commissioner (Roundtree) and chief (Smith) railroad an innocent sap, Officer Jack Forest (Campbell), after his wife is murdered by the maniac. Clean it up quickly, sweep the whole matter under the rug; we can't have the department looking bad, even if it only means the killer will lay low for a while before striking again. In a post-Tamir Rice, post-Freddie Gray world, the issue of police and public trust is arguably an even hotter topic than it was when the movie was made.

As dark and as violent as the movie is, Maniac Cop has a sly if morbid sense of humor. One early victim is handcuffed and smothered face first into wet cement. The next day, police and city workers have to use to jackhammers to carve him out. The movie also has fun faking the viewer out, leading you on before subverting expectations, particularly with the fate of one character.

When we learn the history of the maniac cop, we discover the truth is much worse. Matt Cordell (Z'Dar) was a tough super cop who took down all sorts of criminal scum, but city politicians and police officials threw him into Sing Sing, supposedly for abusing suspects, where he was attacked and seemingly murdered (the attack occurs in the shower, with a completely nude Z'Dar fighting off three thugs with shivs. Done entirely in slow motion and in the shadows, it's a brutal sequence). Thought dead, he survived somehow, disfigured, and now he's back on the streets, taking revenge against the city he once swore to protect after the corrupt system tried to destroy him. Even though he's a monster, he's also tragic, deserving of some sympathy.

Lustig keeps Cordell to the shadows and long shots. Until the end, we don't get a good, clear look at his face. Instead, we mostly see his gloved hands as they extract a blade or grab a throat. He's so intimidatingly big and imposing, he towers over everyone else in the cast and physically manhandles them with ease. The fact he has no dialogue only makes him more menacing. This is one cop you aren't going to talk out of giving you a ticket.

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