October 13, 2008

MANIAC COP - 1 2 3 ...and maybe 4

Good movie sequels are pretty rare. Maniac Cop 2 is a great example of a memorable follow-up that delivers even more than the first. I've rewatched all three Maniac Cop films to double-check my favouritism, and also learned that work has started on a possible Maniac Cop 4! Let's rewind and look at the whole maniacal saga...

In 1980, director William Lustig struck video nasty gold with his low-budget horror Maniac - the tale of a deranged serial killer (actor Joe Spinell certainly looked the part) who assaults, kills and scalps his female victims. This was the kind of slasher that got everyone upset, because women were victims, stalked at length and then realistically scalped (courtesy of Tom Savini's bloody make-up FX). Graphic, controversial, usually censored and therefore a hit on dodgy VHS.

(1988, USA)

After shooting the bloody cop thriller Vigilante (1983), Lustig combined his police and horror genres. Maniac Cop introduced a street cop turned random serial killer, with a short sword hidden in his night stick. As the murders continue, the public get spooked by anyone with a badge. 

The resulting subversive scenario - society losing faith in the police force - is typical of producer Larry Cohen's work (the It's Alive trilogy, The Stuff). Another twist is that the couple investigating the case (played by The Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell and Laurene Landon) get implicated as the killers, because the main suspect is dead! Or is he... Tom Atkins (The Fog, Night of the Creeps) is the unlucky detective trying to unravel the mess.

While the killer is being tracked down in a city in panic, we also get his backstory and meet everyone involved - it's all very plot heavy. Also Bruce Campbell's trademark humour is forcibly subdued here. Lustig cashes in on his Maniac reputation, but pulls back on the violence, trading in
 for pumped up action scenes. There's a nighttime car chase where one of the vehicles is on fire, and a superb and highly dangerous-looking crash. It's all fun enough, but the sequel would take everything up a notch.

Maniac Cop has been released twice on DVD in the US, first remastered widescreen (above) and also recently in a Synapse Special Edition.

(1990, USA)

The sequel generously kicks off with a repeat of the dynamite climax of Maniac Cop. As the cop continues to kill, the police discover they've been after the wrong man. Maniac Cop ups his game by teaming up with another serial killer in a diabolical plan to avenge himself, (and conclude some unfinished business left hanging in the first). Bruce Campbell is back, but Robert Davi (the Bond baddie in License To Kill) and Claudia Christian (sensational as stripper turned alien killing machine in The Hidden) are new on the case - Davi plays a disillusioned hard-boiled detective, Christian a street-smart lawyer.

There follows a series of astonishing action scenes, all expanding on the stunts in the first film. They all benefit from being shot at night. A car chase where one vehicle has its tyres ripped off, causes sparks to fly off the bare wheel rims - the entire car chase is spectacularly lit by the sparks alone. There's a gob-smacking runaway car stunt, with a stuntwoman handcuffed to the steering wheel, from the outside! Then there's a huge slow-motion brawl, while Maniac Cop is on fire, but just carries on fighting, letting his victims catch fire as they try to defend themselves - a prolonged series of astonishing stunts...

It's action-horror! Way before Jeepers Creepers, there was a unique sub-genre of car chase action, starting in 1970s horror movies. Death Race 2000 mixed elements of gory horror into a futuristic road race. Race With The Devil piled on the atmosphere, with satanists racing and chasing their victims along America's backroads. The Car was possessed by the Devil, bringing sacrifice to the highways. Later The Hitcher (1986) put the 'stalk and slash' into a road movie. Not to mention the Phantasm films adding high speed hearse action, including the incredible barrel roll stunt in Phantasm III.

Anyway, the 'serial killer team-up' sub-plot gets a little annoying, but the story regains a sense of purpose towards the climax, which brings a spectacular and logical closure that the first film lacked. I rate Maniac Cop 2 over most Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels in the category of most entertaining 'undead killer'.

I've given up waiting for a Special Edition of Maniac Cop 2 - it isn't even on DVD in the US, and no sign of happening in the near future. Instead, I bought the UK region 2 DVD (above) - the 1.33 aspect ratio is a little tight, but it's a clear good-looking transfer. Two original trailers are included - the one made specifically for home video has snappier music and a sharper choice of money-shots. The classic movie trailer tagline is "You have the right to remain silent... Forever... Again". But as you can see above, the DVD cover misquotes this, repeating the tagline from the first film.

(1993, USA)

My hopes were way too high for this sequel, and it was apparently a troubled production - the trailer credits another director as well as Lustig. (There's a couple more clues in this interview on Slasherama). It's still very watchable, but the story is more of a cop thriller, with Maniac Cop only really appearing in a feeble retread of scenes from Halloween II, stalking around a hospital. It's not until the final action sequences when it begins to look anything like a Maniac Cop film.

The film really belongs to Robert Davi who holds everything together. He also has a great supporting cast, including Julius Harris (another Bond baddie, from Live and Let Die), Robert Forster (Vigilante, Alligator, The Black Hole, Dragon Wars) in an amusing cameo, Doug Savant (now a regular in Desperate Housewives), Bobby Di Cicco (no longer the fresh-faced star of Spielberg's 1941) and Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, Damnation Alley - just before he took a long break from acting).

Maniac Cop 3 is available on DVD, once again only fullframe in the UK, and the cover art is uninspiring (the grittier VHS artwork is displayed above).

While Googling the trilogy, I hit the news that Maniac Cop 4 is now on the boards, as William Lustig and Larry Cohen have now regained the sequel rights. Check here for any more news and lots more Maniac Cop stuff. It's time for me to start getting my hopes up again...

1 comment:

  1. I just thought that you might like to know that apparently Maniac Cop 2 & 3 are available on DVD, here in the U.S.

    I just went to Netflix (our rental company via mail) and they have 1 & 2, both available to watch Instantly, as well as having Part 3 available! :-)