In both his own directorial works and in his screenwriting for other people’s projects, Larry Cohen’s influence leaves an instantly recognisable imprint on all the films he’s involved with. Ever since his 1960s aliens-are-among-us paranoid conspiracy TV series “The Invaders”, Cohen has excelled in taking b-movie subject matter and producing crazy genre hybrids that work perfectly as popular entertainment, while often harbouring the germ of a subversive idea that suggests something more profound at work below their surfaces. Films such as “It’s Alive”, “God Told Me To”, “The Stuff” and “Q - The Winged Serpent” display a perverse, humorous and iconoclastic sensibility, while keeping both eyes firmly on the ultimate goal of becoming a box office success -- even if not all of them actually achieved that aim. “Maniac Cop” is a perfect example of the Cohen screenplay formula. Written in ten days for “Maniac” director William Lustig, it comes from a joke idea that Cohen came up with in thirty seconds off the top of his head during a quick ideas-based coffee break discussion with the director, for combining the slasher movie with a police actioner (Cohen even produced the film’s hilarious tag line – ‘You Have the Right to Remain Silent … Forever!’ – at the same brief meeting). The film is a silly, irreverent but entertaining horror-based spin on the Dirty Harry/rogue cop template, enlivened by a great cast and an efficiently constructed narrative that plays on the viewer’s familiarity with various strains of the cop drama format which have played down the years, but deftly splices them into a series of slasher and action movie set-pieces, all the while wryly commenting on the sorts of violent vigilante films that were then often being made by both Lustig and “Maniac Cop” executive producer James Glickenehaus.
The film is a great deal less grungy and nastier than Lustig’s usual fare, and has its tongue firmly wedged in its cheek as the plot developments get more and more outré. Cohen’s general approach to every sequence is to start off in a recognisable place we’ve seen in countless genre movies before, and to then give things a rug-pulling twist by the end of the scene that usually depends on suddenly introducing elements from an unexpected source. The opening scene sums up the approach: we start with a young woman leaving the police officer-frequented bar she works at, to walk home through a rough-looking part of Harlem. Next thing we know she’s being set upon by ethnic gang members. Escaping through a park she spies a police officer in the far distance whom she just manages to reach before her pursuers can catch up with her, only for the white-gloved officer to grab her by the head, lift her from the ground, and snap her spine at the neck with one swift jerk.
The body is discovered the next morning and the two hoodlums are quickly taken into custody, but Detective Lieutenant Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) is nevertheless convinced that the killer is really a cop. His boss, Commissioner Pike (Richard Roundtree), won’t hear any of it though. Despite it quickly becoming apparent that the two gang members couldn’t have inflicted the injuries seen on the corpse, Pike and the bone-headed Captain Ripley (William Smith) believe that the killer is merely impersonating a cop rather than actually being one himself. Meanwhile, the killings continue -- with lots of innocent New Yorkers hacked down by the hulking white-gloved maniac who carries a blade concealed in his side baton.
Cohen starts off with a typical giallo/mystery thriller format in which the identity of the killer is up for grabs. Even the driven McCrae, who is the only one who, for no apparent reason, seems convinced the killer is really a cop, might actually turn out to be the maniac murderer himself at this stage, and Cohen is sufficiently savvy enough to known the viewer is going to be thinking that anyway, and so works the suggestion into the script in the form of an amusingly strange scene between Pike and McCrae, which comes after the detective suggests they run psychological tests on the entire New York police force. ‘When was the last time you had a mental test?’ Pike responds. And we learn that McCrea has been suspected of contemplating suicide in the past after the death of his former partner. ‘You don’t smile much do you,’ Pike offers. And Atkins comes up with the most amusingly forced grin imaginable, that really does make McCrae look like a loon.
After failing to persuade his superiors to go public with his theory, Frank leaks the idea to the press and panic ensues, with nervous civilians responding to the merest suggestion of police interest in their activities by producing firearms and blasting innocent cops into oblivion. Meanwhile, Cohen introduces another suspect, this time played by genre stalwart Bruce Campbell, who is acting so suspiciously as rookie cop Jack Forrest, that even his wife suspects him of being the killer; she’s even keeping a file of clippings on the slayings with that very thought in mind. Even more mysteriously, an anonymous female caller keeps ringing her every night after Jack leaves the house -- apparently on extra patrol duties -- to tell her that her husband really is the killer that everyone is talking about.
The halfway mark reveals a few unexpected facts and develops in a direction that catapults the storyline into more fantasy-based areas of horror, but by then Jack is banged up in a police cell having been implicated in the murder of his own wife when he was in fact meeting his colleague, police officer Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon), whom he’s been having an affair with during the whole time he was meant to be out slaughtering innocents. The real killer has set him up to take the blame for the crimes, using the help of an insider who’s been providing him with information all along. It’s up to McCrae and Mallory to clear Jack’s name and discover the weird truth behind the identity of the real Maniac Cop.
As this engaging slice of hokum trundles along, introducing an undead antagonist seemingly without any concern for rationalising such a bizarre turn of events, the film becomes a suspense-based action movie with an unstoppable Terminator-like killer on the loose, a relentless muscle-bound lump who can’t be killed even when a whole chamber is emptied into him, yet who no one believes actually exists apart from three people. Cohen’s narrative is clever in keeping the action set-pieces coming, with the authorities relentlessly hunting Jack while he and his two allies, Theresa and Frank, try to get to the bottom of the mystery. The real killer (spoilers ahoy!) turns out to be held by all to be a ‘hero’ of the force (even Frank considers him thus) called Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar). He was a rule-breaking maverick in the Dirty Harry mould, who got results but who was hung out to dry for political reasons by the police Commissioner and the Mayor, and eventually imprisoned for his unorthodox methods. Unfortunately he was locked away in a penitentiary that was already full of the criminals he’d previously put behind bars in the first place. Here, Cordell was mutilated and murdered by a gang who pounced on him in the prison showers -- but now he has come back to life to take his revenge on the city, particularly on the high ranking people who originally betrayed him.
Played by Robert Z’Dar as a mad-eyed zombie brute with rippling biceps while under heavy prosthetic make-up, Cordell seems a physically unlikely candidate for New York’s finest, but beneath the gory killings, crazy action and genre-melding plot trickery, Cohen has layered a message about authority and violence, vigilantism and masculinity -- but with ever such a delicate touch that it never interferes with the film’s duty to entertain as a mainstream action movie-slasher hybrid. But nevertheless Cohen’s screenplay does take great delight in contrasting the vigilantism of the cops hunting Jack Forrest while believing him to be the murderer (‘If I just blew your head off, I’d be a hero,’ screams one of his former colleagues during a final act confrontation) with the former actions of the undead zombie who is now manipulating the whole situation in order to get to the Mayor and the police Commissioner. As McCrae finds out more about the supposedly dead maverick, he runs into former colleagues of Cordell’s who all see him as a hero just as Frank once did, and who see in his memory a non-nonsense role model in the fight to clean up the streets. The weirdly homoerotic flashback to the attack on Cordell in the prison showers, which leaves him heavily scarred from a knife attack and apparently dead, is the ultimate attack on his masculinity, which apparently messes him up so much that he becomes a gargoyle-faced maniac with staring eyes, cracked teeth and a ruddy, churned-up skin condition, surviving the mortuary slab to take his sense of righteous fury to its next logical step.
Although all the film’s roles are written as cookie-cutter clichés, the film is cast so perfectly you don’t actually need any backstory for these characters; Lustig has simply employed actors who’ve previously made a living playing exactly the same types of role throughout their careers in countless other genre films. Thus Tom Atkins is the quintessential jaded detective in a raincoat, Bruch Campbell the handsome action hero, and Richard Roundtree pitch perfect in his handful of scenes as police Commissioner Pike. Laurene Landon’s thinly written role is emboldened by the actress’s radiant screen presence and Sheree North gets an unusual and entertaining turn as Cordell’s devoted, crippled former love. The whole thing is wrapped up in Jay Chattaway’s oh, so very eighties pounding, synth-driven score.
“Maniac Cop” comes to Blu-ray in very good condition for its UK Arrow Video release. The HD transfer looks natural and sufficiently detailed and avoids quite a lot of the excessive DNR which many people feel has marred some of Arrow’s previous releases. Likewise, the colours look natural and the 2.0 Stereo audio track does the job nicely. The disc includes two trailers in a 1.33 aspect ratio and a couple of TV spots. Actor Tom Atkins provides an engaging interview that runs for about 20 minutes, in which he talks about his career in genre films and his memories of being terrified by the ‘50s classic “The Thing From Another World” as a kid. Actress Laurene Landon recalls her start in the film industry in a 13 minute piece, which involved mistaking director Robert Aldrich for Robert Altman and starring alongside Peter Falk in the wrestling movie “All the Marbles”. Finally Larry Cohen talks about the inauspicious genesis of the Maniac Cop project and about its two sequels in a featurette running at 18 minutes.
The release comes with the usual Arrow Video package, which includes a fold-out artwork poster, a four panel reversible sleeve option and a booklet that features an assessment of the film by writer Troy Howarth and an extract from an interview with Bill Lustig adapted from Callum Waddell’s new book, “Taboo Breakers”. All in all this is a nice-looking release of an inessential but well-made piece of satirical ‘80s action/horror cinema.
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