Directed By: William Lustig
Starring: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon
Tag line: "Sometimes help can be dangerous"
Trivia: Boxer Jake LaMotta makes a brief cameo in the movie, playing a police detective
Night time in the city. While on her way home from work, Cassie (Jill Gatsby), a waitress, is attacked by two muggers. During the scrum, she somehow manages to break free, and makes a run for it. With her assailants closing in on her, Cassie spots a policeman in the shadows of a small neighborhood park and rushes towards him. But by the look on her face, we know this is no ordinary cop, and before Cassie can react the officer has his hands around her throat…
This is the opening scene of director William Lustig’s Maniac Cop, a 1988 horror / slasher film that, among other things, explores what might happen when honest, law-abiding citizens can no longer rely on the police to protect them.
The two muggers are eventually arrested for Cassie’s murder, but swear that she was killed by a cop. With bruises on the victim’s neck that suggest she was strangled by a much larger person than either of the suspects, Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) finds himself wondering if someone on the force is, in fact, a homicidal maniac. Commissioner Pike (Richard Roundtree) tells McCrae to keep his suspicions to himself; if the public believes that a maniac cop is roaming the streets, it could lead to chaos. But when more people turn up dead, and several witnesses claim to have spotted a tall policeman leaving the scene of the crimes, McCrae feels he has no alternative but to leak the story to the press.
A few days after the public is informed, Ellen Forrest (Victoria Caitlin) starts to suspect that her husband, Jack (Bruce Campbell), a patrolman who works mainly at night, may be the killer. To learn the truth, she follows him one evening, only to find that he’s actually having an affair with Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon), a fellow officer. Embarrassed and heartbroken, Ellen heads for home and, on the way, is attacked by the real killer, who, sometime later, dumps her lifeless body in the very motel room that Jack and Theresa had occupied.
The next morning, Jack (who, due to his illicit affair, refuses to give a solid alibi) is taken into custody and charged with his wife’s murder. What’s more, his superior, Captain Ripley (William Smith), thinks that Jack is also the killer they’re searching for. Still not convinced they have the right man, McCrae continues to dig deeper, and during his investigation makes a discovery so amazing that he himself can hardly believe it.
Above all else, Maniac Cop is a damn good slasher film. The title character, played by Robert Z’Dar, in an imposing figure with some very lethal weapons at his disposal (including a knife hidden inside his night stick), and most of the kill scenes are appropriately bloody. Not even learning a little about his background (i.e. - his name and what made him snap) can reduce his effectiveness; from start to finish, the maniac cop is a brutal, savage killer.
But Maniac Cop is also an intriguing mystery (McCrae’s investigation leads him in several different directions, and I liked how the movie took its time piecing the clues together) as well as an engaging character study (the killer’s backstory is as disturbing as it is tragic). Most interesting of all, though, is how the film provides a glimpse of a society that has lost faith in its police force; in one unfortunate scene (which takes place shortly after the press got hold of the story), a young cop stops to assist a woman whose car has broken down, only to be shot dead by the nervous motorist when she mistakes him for the killer. While I initially agreed with McCrae that the public had a right to know what was going on, this scene proved that Commissioner Pike’s fears weren’t as unfounded as I originally thought.
With great performances by veterans Atkins and Campbell (not to mention a cameo by Sam Raimi, as a reporter covering the St. Patrick’s Day parade) and a few surprising twists along the way, Maniac Cop is an excellent horror movie that offers viewers a bit more than the average ‘80s slasher flick.