Friday, June 06, 2014

Maniac Cop

"You have the right to remain silent...forever!" read the original tagline for MANIAC COP, a fast-moving action/horror flick with a subversive sense of humor.

It was written by Larry Cohen, who virtually created his own subgenre of witty monster pictures with independent hits like GOD TOLD ME TO, IT’S ALIVE, and the inimitable Q about a winged Aztec serpent that plucks bathing beauties off New York rooftops and carries them back to its lair in the Chrysler Building. Cohen screenplays have their own unique rhythm and humor, and MANIAC COP is no exception.

Cohen, who frequently directed his scripts, stuck to producing MANIAC COP and handed the directorial reins to William Lustig, who demonstrated a flair for gritty violence on MANIAC (which is marked by Tom Savini’s splashy gore effects and an off-kilter lead performance by TAXI DRIVER actor Joe Spinell) and VIGILANTE. Like Cohen, Lustig had a penchant for casting venerable cult actors with minor mainstream acceptance, but strong acting chops who knew how to go beyond the script to flesh out their characters.

White-haired Tom Atkins, who built his horror cred on THE FOG and the underrated HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, takes top billing as Frank McCrae, a lone wolf police detective investigating a series of brutal murders in New York City. Despite flack from the police commissioner (SHAFT’s Richard Roundtree) and his superior officer (William Smith, Arnold’s dad in CONAN THE BARBARIAN), McCrae steadfastly adheres to his theory that the killer, whom witnesses describe wearing a policeman’s uniform, is a cop, rather than someone in disguise.

His theory starts to bear weight when patrolman Jack Forrest (EVIL DEAD’s Bruce Campbell), whose wife is the latest victim, is arrested for being the Maniac Cop. However, Jack’s lover, vice cop Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon of Cohen’s I, THE JURY), was with Jack when his wife was murdered. Theresa convinces McCrae of Forrest’s innocence and teams up with the older cop to find the real killer.

Cohen’s script contains its fair share of offbeat touches and clever twists, which I won’t reveal. His villain is based in the classic tradition of the Phantom of the Opera and the Frankenstein monster. Matt Cordell, played by beefy, big-jawed Robert Z’Dar (TANGO & CASH), was a good but tough cop who was railroaded by the force into prison, where he was slashed by inmates and left for dead. Now physically scarred and mentally insane, Cordell walks the streets in search of vengeance against a city that betrayed him.

Z’Dar isn’t given much of a chance to act, but he’s imposing. Lustig and cinematographer James Lemmo (FEAR CITY) make the limited budget look bigger by using fluid camerawork, swift pacing, and relying on stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos to concoct some exceptional action sequences. Appearances by Sheree North, boxer Jake LaMotta, local folk hero Frank Pesce, and SPIDER-MAN director Sam Raimi add extra flair for cult-movie fans. James Glickenhaus, the writer and director of THE EXTERMINATOR, was the executive producer.

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