Shadowvision: “MANIAC COP”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Sometimes, this writer likes to embrace the experimental nature of this article, exploring the black and white visuals against films that certainly might not fit into the Shadowvision mold. Many times, those films are either ones highly dependent on color or certain aesthetics that are inherently tied to a contemporary time period. But this column is meant to show films in a different light, recognizing visual and tonal influences in a way that one might not see otherwise in their intended format, so these challenging films are exceptionally fascinating selections.
And this week’s selection definitely falls into the latter category, as William Lustig’s MANIAC COP is certainly a product of its time, portraying a very specific era of New York with very specific elements of that decade’s genre offerings. MANIAC COP has everything an ’80s horror flick needed at the time: over-the-top kills, a perpetually wavy synth score and a big bad boogeyman to lead the way. But MANIAC COP also carries some significant ties to the B-movies of the ’50s; after all, the film follows an unstoppable monster birthed by the corrupt government as it lays waste to a metropolitan area while an innocent man is framed for his crimes. And while color is important to the film, especially during Matt Cordell’s flashback, it’s nowhere near essential to the tone or atmosphere, making MANIAC COP fitting for a Shadowvision re-examination.
Before we go into the film, let’s cover the technical side of things, shall we? As for the black and white transfer, the film could definitely use a contrast boost, so rack it up a few notches until you get a comfortable black and white image. As is, the film is heavily gray and dark in areas, so while you can watch the film like that, the more authentic black and white experience will come from enhanced contrast. However, once the contrast is enhanced, be careful about your brightness level, which you should lower if you’d previously adjusted above the technological standard.
Though not completely expected, MANIAC COP did not have a cinematic overhaul in the same way that select films do in this column; in fact, the ’80s aesthetics of MANIAC COP were far more apparent in black and white than its ’50s premise. For better or for worse, the film never felt like a monster movie, despite the hulking title character himself. Instead, the slasher elements, the action-inspired set pieces and Larry Cohen visual influence firmly rooted the film still in its era, making the monochrome transfer rarely effective.
However, this does not mean the entire experience was a bust, as there were several moments throughout the film that did benefit from the black and white experience. Perhaps the biggest change is the use of shadowing; the film gains a much greater sense of depth in black and white, especially during the stalking sequences and in Cordell’s prison scene. Furthermore, a lot of the dialogue felt reminiscent of either old-school detective yarns, such as in McCrae’s first meeting with Sally Noland, or exposition-heavy monster flicks, such as in Jack and Theresa’s prison visit. Even the MANIAC COP himself is a bit scarier in black and white, as his appearance is more menacing without the blue police uniform.
Visually speaking, the film doesn’t change much in black and white, with the composition of the film actually favoring the color version. Taking inspiration from other urban horrors of the time, MANIAC COP only really catches your eye in black in white during very specific shots, such as Sally’s dutch angle reveal of the hanging police officer or the low angle of Jack’s introductory scenes. It’s here where we see Lustig taking a page of out the books of Alfred Hitchcock or Robert Wise, working with the chaotic and paranoid atmosphere of those scenes. Even the infamous shower sequence that was re-used in the film’s sequel has many cues to PSYCHO that become much more apparent in black and white.
For the most part, however, MANIAC COP’s technical side never quite works hand in hand with black and white. The score is too reminiscent of the time, which constantly removes the viewer from the black and white experience. Likewise, MANIAC COP’s lighting is occasionally stark enough to catch one’s eye, but is mostly pedestrian, save for the aforementioned moments where Lustig really gets to flex his filmmaking muscles. And the absence of color really strips away the visual appeal of ’80s New York; no longer is there the sleazy neon jungle that has so often defined Lustig’s cinematic environments.
Overall, MANIAC COP simply does not work in black and white, even if select sequences do stand out in the medium. The added depth of monochrome doesn’t change much of the film’s visual composition, and many of the things that define MANIAC COP in its intended format are what stick out like a sore thumb in black and white. While Shadowvision is mostly an experimental column, MANIAC COP did not pass the test, and therefore, should likely be watched only as it was meant to be seen.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: No.