For the Ladies – Maniac Cop
I love a good exploitation movie, especially one that combines horror, action, and great stunts. What I don’t like so much is how these movies usually portray women. Now, I have a sense of perspective, and I don’t really need everything to match up with my Platonic feminist ideal; just because part of a movie contains troubling material doesn’t mean there isn’t anything of value in it. But sometimes it’s just too much. I am not against boobs or violence, but occasionally the violence against boobs is relentless. One of the movies I’ve discovered in the past year, Maniac Cop (1988), is a great example that exploitation doesn’t have go down this path to be effective. (This article contains mild spoilers – so be forewarned.)
Directed by William Lustig and written and produced by Larry Cohen, Maniac Cop is the story of a New York under siege by – you guessed it – a maniac cop. Innocent civilians are being killed by a man in a street cop uniform, and as much as the police higher ups want to deny it, it looks like an officer is behind the murders. Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) is on the case, but has his doubts when beat cop Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is arrested. Someone is framing Forrest, but it takes some digging to come up with the culprit. A dead super cop and an old cover up combine to create an evil force out for vengeance.
There are a lot of reasons to love this movie. Bruce Campbell is always great, and I am a huge fan of Tom Atkins; I’ll happily watch him in almost anything. There are a lot of great action scenes, and the plot is just silly enough to make it fun and not stupid. I’d say it’s pretty near perfect as an example of the genre. But the one thing I like best – probably because it is so rare – is the portrayal of the female characters. There are five named female characters, and they all have agency and interesting story arcs. I’m not going to say this film is a rousing feminist manifesto, but intentionally or not, it’s got some interesting things going on. Let’s take a look at the ladies:
Cassie Philips (Jill Gatsby): In the opening scene, Cassie is a bartender on her way home when she is assaulted by two muggers. She manages to beat them up and get away, but doesn’t have the same luck when she asks the wrong cop for help.
Regina Sheperd (Nina Arvesen): Former boyfriend McCrae goes to newswoman Gina to leak a story about the maniac cop. She risks the anger of the police department to spread the news of a dangerous killer.
Ellen Forrest (Victoria Catlin): Jack’s wife Ellen doesn’t seem too terribly stable, but in her defense he seems like a crappy husband, and someone has been anonymously calling her and making it seem like Jack is the maniac cop. Instead of cowering at home, she follows Jack and confronts him about his activities. She ends up dead, but only because someone wants to frame Jack.
Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon): Jack’s girlfriend, Theresa, is also a beat cop who sometimes works vice. She is loyal, spunky, not afraid to confront those in power, and knows her way around a gun. She not only sticks by Jack after he gets accused of being the maniac cop, she manages to save him from said maniac cop, a fate many others do not escape.
Sally Noland (Sheree North): Girlfriend to the maniac cop, she wants him to stop killing, but she will put the hurt on anyone who tries to get in his way. She’s handicapped, but manages to beat the crap out of McCrae when she realizes he has discovered her secret.
Three of these characters die, the acting can be a little sketchy, and some of their stories are a little thin, but this is one of the best examples of how great women can be written – not only in exploitation films, but in films in general. Every character has a little something that contributes to the story as a whole. The actresses might be cast for their looks, but nobody is there just to add boobs. Like most movies, it could have a few more women cast as background police characters and such, but I’m not going to complain too hard. Hollywood pay attention; this is how you do it. You don’t have to be perfect, but it’s not that hard to write women meaningfully into your story.
Now Maniac Cop is part of a series, so how do the others stack up? Maniac Cop 2 was somewhat of a disappointment to me. While it has a great woman character played by Claudia Christian, (I know Lustig didn’t like her, but I think she does okay.) it also has a stripper for the sake of having strippers and contains one of my least favorite things: corpse boobs. Listen, if you want to have breasts in your movie, go for it, but perfectly lit corpse boobs are creepy and nothing is going to change that. I also just don’t care for it as a movie, although the blu ray version has a conversation between William Lustig and Nicolas Winding Refn that is well worth the price of the disc. Maniac Cop 3 is much maligned, but I actually quite like it. It’s a mess, but a fun one, and also contains some more interesting female characters. I hear they are going to reboot this series. I’m not generally a fan of that – I think the original is pretty great – but if they do, I hope they keep what I love most about the films: cool women who kick ass.