Stream to Scream: “MANIAC COP”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Christopher La Vigna
At a time where the public relations between law enforcement and the general public are potentially at an all time low, no ‘80s horror film is more relevant today than the 1988 slasher MANIAC COP. Directed by exploitation master William Lustig (MANIAC) and scripted by Larry Cohen (THE STUFF), the film tells the tale of a tall, shadow-faced serial killer stalking the streets of New York City in a patrolman’s uniform, white gloves and all.
The film’s opening credits sequence, which features the principal cast’s names superimposed in red lettering over close ups of the killer’s badge, gun, and other uniform accessories is immediately unnerving, giving the viewer the sense that they are glimpsing into the stoic ritual of a madman. In the following sequence, two would-be purse snatchers witness the killer cop strangle a woman to death, and it becomes clear that this maniac has a real taste for what he does. From the film’s first sequence, we see that the mysterious psycho cop (played by the late, great Robert Z’Dar) is almost exclusively targeting the innocent civilians of NYC, dispatching them with either a knife concealed within a baton or with nothing more than the iron grip of his hands.
As the body count rises and the public’s fear of anyone sporting a badge and a gun reaches a fever pitch, the NYPD becomes absolutely desperate to catch the killer. While most of the detectives and higher-ups are willing to pin the killings on any scapegoat that’s within an arm’s reach, veteran detective Frank McCrae (the dependable Tom Atkins) is convinced from the get-go that this murderer is someone within the department, or at the very least is getting intel from within. When the paranoid wife of beat cop Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is murdered by the killer, the not-so-stellar husband is quickly arrested and presumed to be the killer by anybody with the authority to determine so, save for McCrae and Forrest’s side-gal, vice cop Theresa Mallory. Together, the trio must plunge into the seedy underbelly of NYPD bureaucracy to find out the identity of the real killer and bring him to justice.
One of the most disheartening (and again, depressingly relevant) scenes in the film comes when McCrae and a fellow cop watch a news report wherein citizens sound-off about their newly intensified fear of police officers, with one elderly gentleman noting they cops used to beat people to get respect, and now they must figure they have to shoot them to do so. It’s a classic “Who Watches The Watchmen?”-type theme, and it forms the center of the film’s cynical core, with the reveal of killer’s identity and motives only reinforcing the idea that perhaps the gung-ho, Harry Callahan-esque, “shoot first, ask questions later” styled police officers of American lore weren’t as bold and noble as we once believed them to be.
As a film, MANIAC COP definitely is a cut above the rest, delivering unpredictable twists, explosive kills and an unforgettable synth soundtrack. Less realistic and grim than Lustig’s MANIAC, Cohen’s script for MANIAC COP is equally impressive, capturing the writer’s unique New York sensibility while blending in elements of a creature feature, slasher film and whodunit. And the cinematography by James Lemmo (who also shot MADMAN and MS .45) is striking, gorgeous and incredibly well composed.
The film went on to spawn two sequels, the beloved action-packed MANIAC COP 2 (covered in a previous Stream To Scream) and MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE (one which Lustig would later go on to credit towards Alan Smithee). The latter films re-frame the titular killer as a sort of twisted vigilante, dispense many of the survivors of the previous films fairly quickly and have a bit more of gonzo, cartoonish charm to them, but are worth checking out for their own brand of Lustig-helmed insanity.
MANIAC COP is now streaming on Shudder.