The Cohen Case Files: Maniac Cop (1988)

Written and Produced by Larry Cohen

If you are attacked, fear for your safety, or witness a crime, who do you call? The answer, of course, is the police. Unless you’re a criminal engaged in illegal activity, any rational person would see a policeman as someone who will help, someone who is safe, and someone who is not going to kill you. It’s this twisting of everything we’re told from the time we’re old enough to learn—that the police will help—that makes Maniac Cop a reasonably affecting movie during its first act. I just wish the rest of the film explored more interesting territory.

In scary late-‘80s New York City, a large shadowy figure dressed as a police officer is killing innocent citizens. First, a young waitress has her neck broken by this giant, using only his bare hands. Next, a drunk driver is slashed to death and thrown, blood gushing from his throat, into the windshield of his own car. Finally, a man is killed by having his face forced down into wet cement.

The high-ranking police and city hall officials are keeping the secret that a police officer may be the killer. But when McCrae (Tom Atkins, playing approximately his 500th policeman role in a genre film), the detective leading the investigation, leaks word of the department’s investigation into its own men, the citizens become just as paranoid of police officers as they are of being attacked or robbed by criminals.

If the film had focused in more on the paranoia surrounding the police, Maniac Cop might have been a memorable and intriguing exploitation film, but Cohen and director William Lustig quickly move past the paranoia angle and focus on the rather ho-hum story of who the killer cop is and why he is murdering random people. Not surprisingly, the answer contains possibly supernatural elements.

Swept up in the investigation are Forrest (Bruce Campbell) and Mallory (Laurene Landon), two uniform cops who are also lovers. Forrest is framed by the actual killer (a hulking Robert Z’Dar) to be the fall guy, something the police commissioner (Richard Roundtree) and the officials in the mayor’s office are only too happy to accept. But McCrae and Mallory don’t believe Forrest is the killer and continue their investigation which leads them to a police officer who was sent to prison for political purposes and murdered by the inmates. Or did he actually die?

The investigation becomes the main storyline during the second act and bogs the film down as it veers from graphically violent horror territory into a routine procedural. McCrae methodically pursues leads, confronts officials trying to stop his investigation, and eventually uncovers the truth. While the reliable Atkins turns in a solid turn that keeps things from ever becoming boring, it still feels like a bit of a letdown to be given a title as inspired as Maniac Cop and then discover it’s actually a police procedural with occasional horror elements.

There is a twist to the film as it shifts gears again in a surprising transition from the second to the third act. But the storytelling becomes sloppy with characters quickly introduced only to be killed off and plot twists given big revelation moments even though the twists were obvious at least thirty minutes before they actually happen.  Everything leads to a final confrontation between Forrest and the killer that is loud and chaotic, but not entirely satisfying.

Cohen wrote and produced the film, turning the directorial duties over to fellow genre veteran Lustig. I am not entirely sure why Cohen did not direct the film, but their sensibilities never mesh well. Lustig has more mainstream instincts than Cohen and gives the film a more straight-forward feel than Cohen’s looser style of directing. But he fails to inject the wit into the film that Cohen puts in the script. Several funny dialogue exchanges fall flat and a subplot about McCrae’s questionable mental state is brought up early in the film and dropped without another scene addressing the subject.

Then there are frustrating technical gaffes that usually do not happen in a Cohen-directed film. During an extended set-piece, the boom mic droops into the frame for several seconds. The film is set in New York City, but much of it was shot in Los Angeles with very little effort put into covering up the differences in geography (streets are too wide, exterior scenes are far too sunny, Los Angeles street signs visible in the background, the occasional palm tree makes a fleeting appearance). At one point, a character is murdered and then visibly moves to allow another character space to move around him. It’s one thing to have sloppy storytelling or continuity errors; it’s something else to include blatant technical mistakes in the final cut of the film.

Even with all the complaints I’ve logged, I still found the film modestly entertaining. Lustig presents the scenes of the killer going about his business in a brutal fashion that heightens the horror elements. The same can be said of a flashback sequence that is bloodier and more graphic than initially expected. Combined with the fun that Atkins, Roundtree, and veteran character actor William Smith (as a police captain) have with their roles, these elements make the film worth seeing. Just don’t expect it to live up to its terrific title.

James Dixon Sighting: As yet another cop, this time supplying reams of exposition to assist McCrae in his investigation.

Special Note: The film also operates as a semi-companion piece to Evil Dead 2. In addition to Campbell, look for Sam Raimi as a television reporter covering a parade and Danny Hicks as a policeman.

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