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Feature


New York City is rocked by a series of brutal murders at the hands of a hulking killer dressed as a police officer (Robert Z’Dar). With a death toll rising, and a scared public opinion turning sharply against the non-murderous boys in blue, grizzled detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) heads an investigation to uncover the mysterious maniac cop’s true identity. Meanwhile, a young cop named Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is stepping out on his paranoid wife, who’s found dead the same night she discovers Jack in bed with fellow officer Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon). Jack is arrested as the chief suspect.

Maniac Cop
The first time I saw the original Maniac Cop I was in the wrong mindset. I read the VHS box, saw that it was from director William Lustig, and staring Bruce Campbell, and I expected the wrong thing – a film with all the offensive grime of Maniac and Vigilante, along with the over-the-top slapstick of Evil Dead II. I also apparently ignored the mainstream friendly R-rating, because I expected something a whole lot more violent. 15 or so years later I know better. Now I know that Maniac Cop is a relatively mainstream piece of exploitation action and horror, one it is informed, but not defined by Lustig’s grit and Campbell’s comedy. What I really should’ve paid attention to was the film’s writer and producer credits, which belong to Larry Cohen, the auteur writer/director of classic high concept horror-comedy hybrids like It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff. Maniac Cop is every inch a Larry Cohen movie, even if he didn’t physically direct it. The story is up to his usual high concept trappings, and is generally speaking character driven. The high concept here sees Cohen mixing standard slasher and cop procedural tropes. From slashers, Cohen takes an indestructible silent oaf of a killer with a sad back-story that gives him a decent excuse for turning into a murderer. From cop procedurals, he takes a hard-boiled cop falling deeper and deeper into his case, asking all the right questions, and getting all the wrong answers. Being Larry Cohen, he’s also sure to inject the appropriate degree of sardonic wit into the mix, thus verifying that he understands the concept is a silly one.

Like most of Cohen’s horror films, Maniac Cop opens with a series of scary set-pieces that set the high concept narrative idea, and like most of Cohen’s horror films the film’s major protagonists are set up with relative realism between the set-pieces. Between his efficient scripting and Lustig’s straight-forward direction, the threat of the killer cop, the identities of our major protagonists, and the concept of the citizens losing trust in the police is firmly established in less than 15 minutes. Campbell is then introduced about 20 minutes into the film, after the plot has been firmly established, first as a red herring, then as an unnecessary secondary protagonist. Through no real fault of his own (outside the fact that it was hard to take him seriously at this point in his career) his part in the story is the least interesting, and generally the most problematic. It’s easy to understand the mindset behind adding the set-up angle to the plot, and it could’ve lead somewhere unexpected, but the purity of the high concept is somewhat lost. It’s plenty relevant for Cohen to be setting diversions for Atkins as the film’s more firmly set protagonist, as this feeds into both slasher and police procedural story elements, but there’s no compelling reason to then follow one of the diversions as a fully formed subplot. Sometimes it feels like Cohen and Lustig are mashing a half-baked sequel into their already perfectly capable B-picture. This is, of course, ironic, since Cohen and Lustig made two more Maniac Cop flicks, both of which were more scaled down, and generally better received.

Maniac Cop
Lustig’s direction is colourful, and savvy without pointing at itself. He’s most show-offish during the opening murders, and Cordell’s stylized flashbacks, where he cleverly plays up Hitchcock’s classic shower scene. Given the influence which Maniac weighs on his career, it’s easy to forget that Lustig is a pretty talented action director (the climax features a breathtaking stunt that almost looks like its going to go wrong for Campbell’s stunt double), especially considering the small budgets he’s usually given, and his basic sense of dialogue and storytelling is often deceptively simple. He also shoots violence quite effectively, but doesn’t really bring any of the grotesque pain he brought to Maniac to this decidedly R-rating friendly fair. Lustig’s only real shortcoming is that his suspenseful scenes usually come off as more funny than suspenseful or scary. And like so many of Lustig films (and Cohen’s films for that matter) Maniac Cop features a supporting character with no lines – New York City. Many filmmakers revel in the dirt and grit of pre-Giuliani era, but Lustig basically made a career out of it (he even filmed it for Dario Argento once). This time he isn’t given as much time to rub the audiences’ faces in the Big Apple, so he runs the credits over a helicopter shot of the city, circa 1988. Lustig’s casting chops pay off with a sort of ‘80s exploitation dream team, including the obvious influence of Atkins (who’s given a few Atkins-ish one-liners) and Campbell, along with Richard Roundtree in a supporting role, and Robert Z'Dar in a ‘star-making’ role. Campbell’s Evil Dead II co-star Dan Hicks, and director Sam Raimi also make cameo appearances.

Maniac Cop

Video


Being a William Lustig film I find I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t watching a Blue Underground disc, but a Synapse films release. Synapse hasn’t been as prolific in releasing Blu-ray discs as Blue Underground, but what they have put out has been, generally speaking, up to Lustig’s company’s video standards. Maniac Cop is shot to look both gritty and garish, which gives the transfer a lot in the way of extremes to work with, including deep, dark corners, and vibrant neon and acrylic elements. This print is quite clean based on the film’s age and relatively low-rent pedigree, but still features a fair bit of minor damage artefacts, mostly in the form of white flecks and a couple of rough black patches. Grain structure is pretty consistent, though there are some white backgrounds that feature more raw swaths of granule discolouration. Detail levels are about as high as could be expected, as seen in skin textures, hair, clothing elements, and general element separation. I’m pleasantly surprised at how well most of the make-up effects fair. There are some minor issues with edge-enhancement, and the grain can be an issue for the sharpness of several scenes, but there isn’t a lot in the way of noticeable compression artefacts. Colour quality is a big plus, especially the vibrant reds, blues and greens, all of which feature very little in the way of blooming or bleeding effects.

Maniac Cop

Audio


Synapse fits this release with three different DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks – a 6.1 track, a 4.0 track, and the film’s original 2.0 track. I have no idea why the folks at Synapse bothered with a 4.0 track when they had a relatively strong 6.1 remix already on the disc (perhaps there are some subtle but important difference that I’m missing), but it’s here if you want it. The 6.1 track, which was apparently available as part of Synapse’s first DVD release in a compressed form, is actually quite well mixed, featuring little in the way of awkwardly spread elements. Most of the ambience and directional movement comes from the 2.0 base, but the spread is effective. The car chase that starts the climax features some very well executed directional movement, even if some of the effects sound a little on the ‘canned’ side. The track’s only notable problems are minor issues with volume and clarity. This is most obviously heard in the vocal performances (the 2.0 track features some slightly more consistent vocal volume levels, but the dialogue does bleed out into the stereo channels quite a bit), which sometimes flip from obvious on-set recording to obvious ADR, and gunshots, which sound anywhere from realistic, to ridiculous, sometimes within the same sequence. Jay Chattaway's score, which is quite good for type, gets a nice digital overhaul, and is presented quite thickly thanks to the track’s lack of compression.

Maniac Cop

Extras


I’m sensing a bit of strife between Synapse and Lustig, who is, again, the guy behind Blue Underground. Given his studio’s releases of Maniac, Vigilante and Uncle Sam I’m guessing Lustig had plans for Maniac Cop’s first Blu-ray release, and it seems rights issues got in the way of these plans somewhere. His lack of participation on these extras is reason alone enough to suspect, but even more suspicious is the fact that the Elite DVD, and Synapse’s original DVD special edition featured a commentary track with him, producer/screenwriter Larry Cohen, composer Jay Chattaway and actor Bruce Campbell, which is not available here. Suspicious indeed. Anyway, the extras you do get start with ‘ Maniac Cop Memories’ (12:10, HD), an interview with actor Robert Z’Dar, who runs down his experience as the title character, along with the basics of his early career. ‘Out the Window’ (11:00, HD) is a similar discussion with Tom Atkins, who laments the fact that his character should’ve really been the star while also happily recalling his experiences on the film. ‘Three Minutes with Danny Hicks’ (3:30, HD) finishes up the interview segments by speaking to Evil Dead II star Danny Hicks about his little cameo in Maniac Cop.

The extras are completed with two US trailers, a French trailer, an animated promotional art gallery, additional footage that was included on Japanese television versions of the film featuring Ken Lerner as New York’s mayor (5:40, SD), two TV spots, and a Spanish radio spot.

Maniac Cop

Overall


Maniac Cop is popular enough that it doesn’t beg rediscovery, and isn’t good enough to demand the care Synapse has put into this release, but it’s a fun enough B-flick, and fans should be happy with this release. The video quality is about as good as can be expected from the source, and the 6.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is quite effectively mixed. The extras aren’t complete, specifically missing the Bill Lustig, Larry Cohen and Bruce Campbell’s commentary that accompanied the previous two DVD releases (the track is also missing from the upcoming Arrow Blu-ray release).

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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