While director William Lustig’s Maniac is a horror film for the ages, grounded in steely realism, Maniac Cop suffers from uber-supernaturalism.
And that’s a shame, as a much better film could’ve been made exploiting people’s natural antipathy toward police — by making the badged antagonistan Everyman nonpareil rather than the Quagmire-jawed visage of the late, hulking Robert Z’Dar.
The opener gives us a little taste of the kind of expectation upturn we might’ve had in a better movie: two Puerto Rican thugs are chasing a server outside a Greenwich Village bar, then through a park. When she spots a cop in the distance, the would-be muggers stop dead in their tracks, only to watch the girl get throttled by the very long arms of the law.
But NYPD investigators look askance at the thugs’ testimony — after all, they’re two-bit Latino hoods. No thorough Benson & Stabler (or even Ice-T) investigation here.
That scene, now there’s the crux of where an interesting (and timeless) Maniac Cop film could’ve been made, especially given the tumult of the Black Lives Matter movement today. As the Master himself Alfred Hitchcock once said, “”I’m not against the police; I’m just afraid of them.”
Instead, we get increasingly cartoonish kills as the city is put on edge: one of its own, meant to serve and protect, is attacking New Yorkers and there’s not a damn thing anybody can do about it. Anybody, that is, except the suspicious Lieutenant McCrae (the always dynamite John Carpenter regular, Tom Atkins).
Now, the supernatural aspects of the film alluded to earlier, are in full, ahem…force…when the NYPD try and take out the killer. He’s impervious to bullets and has a strange, convoluted backstory about doing time at Sing Sing (although the prison shower scene is pretty intense).
It’s all rather ridiculous, as are the palm trees, as Lustig decamped from The Big Apple to shoot most of this in LA’s Culver City (of course, Maniac itself was remade in La-La Land).
That being said, the performances are top-drawer; we get genre legend Richard Roundtree as the Commish, Z’Dar as the Maniac Cop, Bruce Campbell as put-upon flatfoot Jack, Laurene Landon as his mistress. Plus, eagle-eyed viewers will spot Lustig as a hotel manager and Sam Raimi as a reporter. Even boxing legend Jake LaMotta pops up in a very brief cameo as a detective.
*** (out of 5)