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Uncle Jasper reviews: Maniac Cop (1988)

Maniac Cop (1988)

Starring Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins, Laurene Landon, Richard Roundtree, William Smith, Robert Z’Dar

Directed By William Lustig


As the 1980’s were drawing to a close, video store horror aisles were beginning to lose some of that blood-splattered luster and morbid creativity that spurred a whole generation of gleefully degenerate filmmakers. Both the Friday the 13th and the Halloween series had been putting the slasher formula through its paces and although it never gets old watching a half-naked camp counselor run through the woods only to be beheaded by some machete wielding nutjob, horror fans were begging for a breath of fresh air.

Rather than resting on their laurels and being quite content with cranking out yet another by-the-numbers slasher film, William Lustig and famed B-grade writer Larry Cohen took a few of your typical genre conventions and stood them on their heads. Trading in the usual spooky woods for the dark alleys of New York City and the typical abused child turned homicidal psychopath for a warped civil servant, Lustig and Cohen were able to escape the standard ho-hum frills of the genre and bring a little something extra to the table. As a result, Maniac Cop offers not only a fresh take on a tried and true formula but also offers a unique look at police brutality taken to its nastiest and most horrendous extremes.

The citizens of Manhattan are tossed into a frightened hysteria after one of New York’s finest has apparently snapped, roaming the streets at night while slitting the throats of random strangers and slashing faces to shreds during routine sobriety tests. Local precincts are trying to subdue the raging shitstorm to no avail. Anti-police sentiments are at an all-time high and the Mayor is pissing his pants over this uniformed madman. In one of the film’s greatest moments, a terrified soccer mom blows the head off of an innocent officer during a routine traffic stop. It’s only then that city hall decides to do something and puts out an APB on the rogue officer.

Trapped in a dead-end marriage, Officer Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell, who does not kill deadites this time around) ducks out late at night and begins sleeping around with a female officer. When his wife suddenly shows up dead in a cheap motel room, a nervous police department is quick to pin the killings on him. With nothing left to lose, Jack is forced to discover the identity of the Maniac Cop on his own.

While it’s easy to dismiss a genre-bender like Maniac Cop for lack of focus, the film actually benefits from its momentary lapses outside the realms of typical horror movie trappings. By focusing on the villain’s elusive motives as well as his identity, the film is at times a murder mystery as well as a surprisingly taut character study. While Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are unredeeming killers, Maniac Cop’s Matt Cordell is a tragic figure despite his homicidal tendencies. A well-filmed flashback sequence reveals that Officer Cordell’s sad fate was the product of the very system he swore to protect. I’m not saying that suffocating an innocent victim in wet concrete is an excusable thing to do by any stretch, but damn, it sure is a lot more understandable once you get to know the motivation behind it.

The film also benefits from never revealing its full hand. By not bullshitting around too much with unnecessary details or extra baggage, the film lends itself a refreshing air of mystery. It is never explained why Officer Cordell is seemingly impervious to gunfire, or why his fingers are ice cold to the touch. Is he a zombie… a ghost? As the movie was winding itself down, I was all ready for some half-baked, horseshit explanation behind it all. Much to my satisfaction, it never came. Restraint on this level is rare when dealing with 80s video store horror. Even Cordell’s face is cloaked in shadow or swirling mist for most of the film, making the final revelation that much more shocking.

Also noteworthy is the impressive cast which reads like a dream team of B-list actors. Any movie that has the creative fortitude to bring the stars of The Evil Dead, Shaft, Night of the Creeps, and Red Dawn together in one place gets instant cred in my book. It sounds like some imaginary teaming I would have jotted down on the pack pages of my Trapper Keeper in seventh grade. Far from mere gimmick casting, pretty much everybody in the movie is solid. Even the Maniac Cop himself, Robert D’Zar is appropriately menacing in his role… the guy doesn’t even have a line of dialogue in the entire film yet manages to command the screen with every moment he has.

There is really not much to dislike about Maniac Cop. It is a surprisingly deep and intelligent film that deceptively belies its surface, B-movie trappings. It is a damn fine piece of entertainment that delivers on several levels. I definitely give this one the Jasper seal of approval.

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