Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Completist Guide to... The Maniac Cop series (1988-1993)

Maniac Cop (1988)
Maniac Cop is such a great b-movie title. First, it's provocative as hell and second it tells you everything you need to know about the plot. There's a maniac and he's a cop. I think what also attracts a lot of people to this film though is Bruce Campbell's name. Now if you don't know who Bruce Campbell is you obviously haven't watched any Evil Dead films. 

Campbell's no great actor but the Evil Dead films (particularly the second and third) were tailor made for his hammy but fun acting style.
In Maniac Cop he isn't given a lot of leeway and those expecting another out there semi-comic performance are going to be disappointed as he plays it very straight and he isn't the main character, at least not until about the halfway mark.

The story is your usual slasher horror with the same old back story. Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar) a decorated cop is murdered when he wrongly gets sent to jail, somehow he survived and now prowls the street in his police uniform killing innocent people left, right and centre. Campbell plays Jack, a rookie cop who happens to get blamed for the murders and must fight to clear his name and take down Cordell along with fellow cop Teresa (Laurene Landon).
It's a pretty barmy plot and it's soaked in that grubby 80s atmosphere. Z'Dar, a sometime stuntman and very intimidating figure, is great as Cordell – he doesn't say any lines but like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator he cuts an terrifying figure.
Great also to see Tom Atkins, a mainstay of a lot of early John Carpenter films, who sort of leads the film as a cop looking into Cordell's background. There's also a cameo by Sam Raimi, who directed Evil Dead, which is obviously a nice favour to Campbell.
The direction by William Lustig is competent but a little dull and muted and the action never really kicks in until the end of the film. Speaking of which, the film just sort of runs out of the steam towards the end and while I can see they were trying for a cliffhanger ending it just feels a little empty.
The script, co-written by Lustig and Larry Cohen, isn't too shabby but it seems like they could have had made the scenes of Cordell stalking his victims a bit more suspenseful and creepy. It's a cracking concept, usually in slasher movies, the victim will try and find a cop or authority figre to help only this time the cop is the killer leaving the victim with no one to turn to. And there's a great bit where one woman shoots an innocent cop because she thinks he might be the Maniac Cop.
There's also a little bit of Jaws-esque plot point where it's St Patrick's Day (not enough films are set during St Patrick's Day) and the mayor has to weigh up whether to cancel it in the wake of the maniac cop murders.
All in all, great premise but slightly lousy execution and Campbell's straightjacketed by being forced to play his role straight. Really his forte is comedy and he just doesn't cut the mustard as a straight forward lead.
Classic quote:
Frank McCrae: Whole city's goin' to hell. You can't take a pee anywhere anymore. 

Maniac Cop 2 (1990)
Maniac Cop 2 is where the series really hits a peak. Lustig returns and addresses the major problem of the original film by embracing the silliness of the premise. On the one hand it's a shame because I think you could do a really interesting serious film about someone killing people dressed as a cop. But on the other half you could do what this film does, and ramp up the action to extreme levels.
Campbell bows out of the film pretty early on making way for the new lead Det. Sean McKinney played by Robert Davi (most famous for playing the main villain in Licence to Kill and one half of the Fratelli brothers in The Goonies) and he does a pretty good job. I always like it when actors who usually play bad guy change tack and play a good guy for a change.
Laurene Landon also returns as Teresa to provide some good continuity between the two films. I've got to say this a pretty rare thing in b-movie sequels, usually previous leading characters are given off-screen deaths or just ignored. Again, the film nicely transitions from Laurene to our new female heroine Susan Riley, played by Claudia Christian (Cmd Ivanova from Babylon 5).
The centre piece of the film is massive shootout in a police station which again draws comparisons to The Terminator but here Lustig arguably creates an even better sequence by including a lot of wild stuntwork. This film is much more of a stunt filled action film than the comparatively sombre original. There's fights with chainsaws, people getting handcuffed to runaway cars and a finale that involves a helluva lot of people getting set on fire.

The film nicely doesn't just try to retread the original, a fellow serial killer Turkell (who isn't a zombie) teams up with Cordell. It's an interesting development but doesn't really go aware. The only downside is the ending is kind of weak compared to the rest of the film. Strangely, the hero and heroine don't really battle the maniac cop at the end, they are sort of just not involved which makes for an aloof ending.
That said this film is awesome for the majority of its short running time (about 80ish minute, perfect b-movie run time) and I'm not alone in thinking it. Quentin Tarantino once cited it as one of his favourite b-movies. Also, director Lustig said in an interview about the film: "It was the film [where] I felt as though myself and my crew were really firing on all cylinders. And I think we made a terrific B-movie".
Classic quote:
Sean McKinney: There's a piece of Cordell in every cop. Every time arresting some mutt isn't enough, because we know they'll be back on the streets before we even do the paperwork. Every time we pull a trigger and it feels good, because no lawyers can reverse that. It all comes down to justice and pressure. There's only that much difference between a cop and
a maniac cop. 
Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993)
Now Maniac Cop 3 had a bit of bad production history. You'll notice on some credits William Lustig and Joel Soisson are credited as co-directing the film. Soisson's an interesting figure in film, he's carved out quite a niche for himself making horror sequels for a lot of Dimension Films franchises; everything from The Prophecy to Hellraiser to Mimic to Children of the Corn to Pulse to Highlander. I've got to say he's not bad at crafting interesting DTV sequels; there's a lot worse producers out there. Anyway, the story is that at some point Lustig walked off the picture and Soisson, who was the producer, took over directing. I'm not sure how much is his and how much Lustig's.
Right down to the film, honestly it's a bit of a mess but not an uninteresting one. Sadly, Claudia Christian doesn't come back but Robert Davi's Sean McKinney does. I'm guessing the Dr Susan Fowler character is probably meant to have been Christian's Susan Riley character. 
The story doesn't really force a whole lot of Cordell but rather a hot-headed female cop Kate Sullivan who is shot during a convenience store hold-up and put in a coma. Cordell gets resurrected once more, this time by a random Voodoo priest (trust me there's very little explanation). Then in a bizarro left-field plot line Cordell goes to the hospital, kills everyone in his path and then kidnaps Kate with the implication that he is going to make her his bride(!).

I get what writer Larry Cohen was aiming for, a sort of homage to
Bride of Frankenstein, but so much of the plot is just random and disjointed. Also the film flits back and forth between the horror of the original film and the action of the second when really you want it to pick one genre and stick with it. There's some very creepy bits with Cordell stalking victims around the hospital and an inventive (if sort of daft) bit where he uses an x-ray machine on a victim until they die.
There's also some sledgehammer satire/criticism of news reporters too; in a sub plot a news reporter deliberately re-edits some footage they captured of Kate during the hold-up that makes it look like she shot innocent people to boost ratings. It's a nice little sub plot that likely ties in to the Rodney King beating of 1991 and the debate on excessive police force and how it's reported by the news. I love that about Larry Cohen, like Roger Corman, he knows he's making trashy b-movies but he's not above trying to stick in a little bit of thought for the audience.
Even though Davi's character takes the lead again, he's given little for his character to do and much like the finale of MC 2, his role is pretty superfluous. Also like second film, there's a finale that involves the titular character being set on fire. However, I know I've got to be respectful that this is low budget, but the effects were horrible – the stuntman was clearly wearing a giant fire retardant suit and it sort of killed the illusion. I think they should have tried to rewrite the ending to something within their budget.
All in all, it isn't a terrible film, and at least they tried again to make an original film rather than rehash the same formula, but once again the film comes unstuck with the ending.

Classic quote:
Det. Sean McKinney: I can't imagine the kind of pain you feel Matt. I'm not gonna pretend to. But don't condemn her to the same fate. She deserves better. You cleared her. She's at peace. Let her go, Matt. Let her go.
Matt Cordell: *talking to the voo-doo man* "Finish it! 

Final word
So that's it for another Completist Guide. Final note is that rumour were around a while back that Lustig and Cohen were interested in a sequel or a remake (the latter sounding more likely) but things have gone quiet. In the meantime, in case you wanna see one last bit of Maniac Cop action check out this short film by Chris Notarile (an amateur filmmaker who does a lot of semi-pro shorts based on franchises).


  1. I'm still trying to figure out the first movie. Is he dead or is he alive? Seeing how he took bullets to the head and chest you would think he was "undead". However the movie makes it out like he was still barely alive when the Dr. released him to Sally. Did she nurse him back to health, did she perform some voodoo mumbo jumbo on him to make him invincible. Those points bother me about the first movie. I like cohesion. I like things to fit together and when they don't I have a hard time enjoying a movie. Oh well, Maniac Cop 2 is literally sitting in my mailbox at home right now. I'm hoping this one helps clear some stuff up for me.

  2. Okay, I watched the 2nd movie last night and I am enjoying the series a bit more now. Heck I might not even watch the 3rd as I thought the ending to the 2nd was a fitting ending to the whole thing. ****Spoilers*****

    I mean they cleared his name and buried his remains. He finally received the "Justice" he deserved. Also believe it or not them simply stating that he was legally brain dead, just breathing was for some reason enough of an answer to my question regarding his undead existance that I was able to move on. So I kind of filled in the blanks regarding exactly why he came back. He was done wrong and that was enough of an injustice that he refused to "cross over" after his apparent death. So to me even though he was brain dead, he refused to leave his dead body. Thus we have an undead maniac cop. Taaa Daaa!!!!

  3. Hey MegaNova, thanks for the comments. Yeah, the first film is a bit unfocused and sloppy. I too was confused about whether or not Cordell was meant to be undead or alive. I think they left it deliberately vague because they thought it would be scarier but it was more confusing if anything.

    I far prefer the second film. It's just much more of an action horror movie and the pacing is relentless. Love that set-piece where Cordell shoots up the police station. You're right, it does really finish up Cordell's story.

    The third film is an interesting film but also kind of step-down. There's nice continuity with Robert Davi coming back as Det. McKinney but there's no real extra story to tell about Cordell. If you've watched the first two I think you might as well give it a go.