The Thin Blue Line

Maniac Cop

In recent years there has been a reevaluation of depictions of the police in various media. As reports of police violence and brutality have gone up, people getting abused and murdered at the hands of cops, many audience members and online critics have gone back over media from the past to say, “you know, cops really haven’t always been the gold star, perfect beings we expect them to be.” They’re human, but they’re held to a high standard, and often they don’t meet that standard. So when you go back to an old movie or show and see cops disobeying the rules for their personal perspective on “the greater good”, it can be hard to accept the reality of these productions.

And then you get a film like Maniac Cop. Produced by low-budget studio Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment, and released in 1988, the movie wasn’t exactly beloved when it came out. It was savaged by critics and only made back half of its paltry $1.1 Mil budget. Sure, it found life on home video (where it then received two sequels), but this movie wasn’t considered a hit upon release. Going back to it now, 35 years later, to see its story of a cop gone bad, I can’t help but think the film was actually ahead of its time. It’s silly, and cheesy, and dumb, but at least when it comes to police violence the movie seems to know what’s up.

It’s late at night when a woman is walking home from her job at a bar. She’s accosted by a couple of street thugs and has to fight them off, fleeing as they give chase. She ends up running through a city park when she comes to a cop. She pleads for help but, instead, he grabs her by the throat, lifts her off the ground, and breaks her neck. Then, over a series of nights, he kills various innocent people who were just going about their lives. The news dubs him the Maniac Cop, and everyone starts to suspect that he might actually be a cop (and not just someone dressed up as a cop), off on a killing spree for revenge.

At least one cop absolutely wants to start investigating the force, active and retired members: Lieutenant Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins). McCrae seems to be the only one on the force that actually is thinking straight about the case, instead of just reacting with his gut. When the perfect suspect lands in his lap, Officer Jack W. Forrest Jr. (Bruce Campbell), the detective is the only one to think Jack might just be innocent. He has an alibi, his mistress (and fellow cop), Officer Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon), but no one else on the force wants to listen to him or McCrae. It only gets worse when the evidence suggests that the killings were done by a dead man, former cop Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar). McCrae, Mallory, and Forrest have to find a way to prove Cordell is alive, and the Maniac Cop, before Jack is sent up the river for good.

This movie has good ideas mixed in among very bad moments, but the biggest credit I can give the film is that it was ahead of its time when it came to depicting the cops. At a time when action heroes were using their badges to get away with all kinds of illegal activities in the name of “cleaning up the streets,” Maniac Cop suggested that maybe we shouldn’t trust every badge we see. One of them could be bad, and the whole department could try and keep it quiet so that the whole department wasn’t blamed for the actions of “just one bad apple.” It’s arguments we hear now, with the “Thin Blue Line” coming in defense of even departments’ worst actors, and this film nails that perfectly. As shitty as this film is in many ways, it’s spot on here.

The other thing I have to credit (before we get into all the things the film does wrong) is the casting of Bruce Campbell. The actor, known mostly for his appearances in the Evil DeadStarted as a horror cheapie to get the foot in the door for three aspiring filmmakers -- Raimi, Tappert, and Campbell -- Evil Dead grew to have a life of its own, as well as launching the "splatstick" genre of horror-comedy. films up to that point, actually turned in a solid performance here as well. That is by degrees considering the overall acting quality in this film, and some truly terrible performances given. Campbell was miles better than many of the B-actors also in the cast here, and he absolutely blows away co-lead Atkins. He’s great as the cop charged with crimes he didn’t commit, and Campbell handles himself well as a dramatic lead and low-grade action star.

With that said, the whole of the film around Campbell is pretty terrible. For starters, there really isn’t another good actor in the whole cast. Atkins, who was in a ton of stuff over the course of his career (including Escape from New York and Halloween III: Season of the Witch which, okay, maybe forget that last one) is absolutely terrible in his role here. He’s distractingly bad, which does help to paper over the fact that the female lead, Landon, is also bad in this movie. Really, if it weren’t for Campbell, this film would be all but unwatchable from start to finish.

Meanwhile, the film never does establish just why the Maniac Cop singles out Jack as his frame-job victim. It associates Jack to Cordell through Cordell’s girlfriend, Officer Sally Noland (Sheree North), who happens to know Jack’s mistress, Mallory. That’s the only connection, though, and it doesn’t explain why Cordell or Noland would want to frame Jack specifically. There had to be anyone they could have framed for it, perhaps someone that actually wronged Cordell and, thus, is a perfect patsy for revenge. A personal connection would make the story feel stronger and give narrative thrust to the whole tale.

If we keep Jack as the protagonist then it should have been Jack who helped send Cordell up the river. Cordell was a bad cop, one that took justice into his own hands over and over again. Framing Jack as the Maniac Cop in this version of the story would not only get Cordell the revenge he wanted, but it would also tar Jack’s good name. “See, he was a bad cop, too. Maybe Cordell actually wasn’t that bad.” But that isn’t ever established, and there’s no good reason to make Jack the patsy. It’s just bad writing.

Meanwhile, for a slasher film the movie really isn’t all that scary. The earliest kill, with the woman in the park, is also the most effective. The kills that come quickly after are rushed and simplistic and happen just to drive up the body count. Then the film goes for a long stretch without any murders (as is needed for the frame-up story) leading to long stretches without any horror at all. It’s an uneven and poorly plotted mess, one that really needed far more ironing out in the production process before filming began. But when we’re talking about a film that was clearly rushed along by a low-budget studio to make quotas, that’s far too much to expect.

Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment was not a big studio, and they made low-budget shlock. That was their thing. Hell, when they eventually went belly up their entire library was bought by Troma Films, the masters of low-budget shlock. It’s pretty clear what kind of film to expect from Maniac Cop and, certainly, it meets that bar. It’s rushed, it’s poorly plotted, and it’s hardly the scariest slasher by a large mile. But it does have one solid performance and an effective story that actually works better now than it even did when the film was released. I doubt people are even going to hail this film as a lost classic, but for what it was telling the film has a ring of truth now. I suppose that’s a better legacy than it had any right to expect when it was released.