I thought about being a police officer for a brief period of time. I’m sure that, much like how the amount of FBI applicants rose when The X-Files became popular, this desire sprang from a love of shows like Beretta, Starsky And Hutch, and Hunter. Unlike the sexier private detective characters , police (on television) most likely wouldn’t be roughed up and intimidated by polyester-clad goons. No, they would do the roughing up, because that was life on the streets, baby, and you had to be tough as nails. And that’s when it dawned on me: tough as nails, I ain’t. Watch any detective show, and the crap these guys go through looks inordinately painful (if not at present then certainly the day after). There was also the requirement of being able to run after perps in uncomfortable-looking footwear. I have wide, flat feet, and just finding the shitty New Balance sneakers I wear around was a task and a half. I’d hate to see how far I would have to go to get an agreeable pair of work kicks for walking a beat in the naked city. Naturally, I don’t think most cops on the job go through anything even remotely approaching the level of action of Hawaii Five-O. As a matter of fact, I tend to imagine that, in reality, there is a ton of paperwork to fill out. I’m pretty good at paperwork, ironically enough. I don’t love it, and I would rather be leaning on suspects, but all things considered, it’s probably safer than getting shot at. Okay, I definitely should not be a police officer.
As Cassie (Jill Gatsby) is walking home from work one night, she is attacked by a pair of vicious muggers. No shrinking violet, Cassie manages to fend them off long enough to make a break for it. Spotting a policeman across a dark playground, Cassie darts for him, but her ersatz rescuer lifts her by the throat and snaps her neck. As detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) investigates, the victims of the Maniac Cop (Robert Z’Dar) continue to pile up.
The central idea behind William Lustig’s film is really simplicity itself. In fact, it’s all right there in the title, and this is one of the big appeals of the film: It is plain in its intentions. This is a quasi-Slasher about a maniac cop. It has all of the puzzle pieces it needs, and it puts them all down in the proper order, so the audience never completely has time or reason to question the sillier aspects of anything that’s going on. Add to that, good performances from solid character actors like Atkins, Bruce Campbell, and William Smith, and the film becomes a nice bit of comfort viewing. Like a quiche at twenty-four frames-per-second.
Of course, part of the simplicity of why the film works also leads to its more interesting facets. At this point in time, the idea of the vigilante cop and vigilantes in general were still very popular in cinema. The year before this film was released saw the fourth installment in the Death Wish series of films, and the same year as its release, the final Dirty Harry film, The Dead Pool, came out, just for two examples. But what Maniac Cop does is turns these premises on their heads. Our antagonist still kills with impunity, but he’s not cleaning up the streets from the scum of the Earth. No, he’s killing innocent people, and inexorably he will turn on the brotherhood of which he at one time counted himself a member. So, he’s sort of a vigilante for evil (isn’t that a contradiction in terms?). Okay, you say, so he’s like every other Slasher antagonist, hacking up people left, right, and center? Well, yes and no. He has the physical traits of a standard slasher (imposing physique, seeming imperviousness to harm, relentless tenacity), and his kills are set up and executed like vignettes with a gruesome payout. But his initial victims are completely unconnected and innocent. There is no punishment of characters for having unmarried sex. There is no punishment of characters for violating his territory. Cordell’s victims are strictly victims. But what they feel like in the terms of the film is practice for what is coming.
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
This kind of leads into another element of the film. It is very much concerned with ideas of betrayal. One of our ostensible heroes is caught cheating on his estranged wife (Victoria Catlin) with our female lead (Laurene Landon). He is then accused of being the maniac cop, thus creating a faux betrayal of the brotherhood of police. Cordell’s friend Sally (Sheree North) actually does betray the police, though she initially has good intentions in what she does. Cordell himself is a victim of betrayal by the police he had counted as his brothers (though he was reputedly a bit of a gunslinger even before his ordeal). But more than all that, at its core, Maniac Cop is about the betrayal of the public trust (see how it’s all right there in the title?). This is developed a bit in the story with a scared citizenry shooting first and asking questions later (what Cordell was accused of by some of his higher ups and colleagues). Yet, the filmmakers never take it all the way to its logical conclusion, perhaps because of budget constraints, perhaps because of genre constraints, I can’t say.
But it gets at a deeper concern many people have. Can we really trust the people with whom we’ve placed our security? Who, after all, will guard the guards themselves? And how can you trust those guardians? Ideas of police brutality are tossed around, and while the movie at the very least raises the questions, it also never really answers them. Partly this is because to do so would make a very good Action/Horror film into a pedantic philosophical discussion. Partly this is because I think Lustig, along with screenwriter/producer Larry Cohen, has enough faith in the audience to either know their feelings on the subject and even whether or not they would care to consider it. Consequently, they give the viewers the ingredients and the instructions and leave the actual cooking up to the individual (another quiche reference? How droll). Using straightforward direction as well as some unobtrusive but still very impressive cinematography by Vincent J. Rabe (who only shot one other film, unfortunately), the filmmakers produced an entertaining little film that has something of a brain underneath, if you’re so inclined to dig that deep. But you don’t have to in order to enjoy it.
MVT: Lustig has always had a very unpretentious hand behind the camera, and his direction works because it doesn’t put on airs while simultaneously acknowledging that there is some thought at play. It doesn’t pretend that it’s more than it is, but it also doesn’t pretend it’s dumb.
Make Or Break: I think the first kill scene does a fantastic job of setting up the premise and the tone. It has an edge to it, some unexpectedness (Cassie’s more of a badass than one would think at first blush), and a nasty little ending. What more could you ask of a film titled Maniac Cop?