Saturday, April 18, 2009

#59: Maniac Cop 2 (William Lustig, 1990)

I've seen four of director William Lustig's films, and three of them have the word "maniac" in the title. The one that didn't, Relentless, was about a maniac. I find that hilarious. Lustig, a fine but relatively graceless director of urban horror and crime films, excels at sleazy atmospherics and kick-ass action scenes. Maniac Cop 2, like its predecessor, succeeds at both.

The original Maniac Cop was a winning hybrid of horror, crime thriller, and action movie with a boatload of cult movie actors, including Bruce Campbell in the lead. Maniac Cop 2 picks up right where the first film left off (literally -- the first five minutes are the last five minutes of the first film). Despite this recycling of scenes from Maniac Cop numero uno, which clock in at about 15 minutes of the 90-minute running time, the rest of the sequel is just as good, if not better, than the first. (A digression: I just had a German pancake in the middle of writing this post. Holy shit, it was good.) As you can probably guess, the maniac cop's reign of terror is not over, though the police commissioner decides it is for the sake of public appearances. A police psychologist interviews Bruce Campbell and Laurene Landon, who claim the maniac cop is still undead and out to get cops and innocent people. Campbell eventually plays ball to keep his job, but Landon is declared unfit for duty. Meanwhile, Robert Davi (right-wing wing-nut and Rush Limbaugh/Ann Coulter buddy who, nevertheless, is a fun actor) gets involved in the case, as well as another crime spree, the serial killings of strippers. I find it funny that the neo-conservative Davi has to say lines written by the left-of-Castro Larry Cohen.

Though the story is pure horror, an unfairly disgraced cop comes back from the dead to get revenge and teams up with a serial killer, the movie is predominantly an action film in horror's clothing. The movie is full of fights, shootouts, car chases, and explosions. One particularly exciting car chase sees a woman handcuffed to the steering wheel by the maniac cop and pushed into busy traffic. She is on the outside of the car, except for handcuffed hands. It's nuts! It's bananas! Leo Rossi as the serial killer is a nice touch. He replaced the originally cast Joe Spinell, who died before the film was made, and he does well. His character is not your typical serial killer. I don't want to give too much away, but Rossi's killer is much goofier and more polite than the typical movie murderer. Other small parts of note include a sleazy robber who is reduced to making the clerk scratch off lottery tickets when the safe can't be opened and a blind news vendor played by James Earl Jones' dad.

Director Lustig, stars Campbell and Robert Z'Dar, and screenwriter/producer Larry Cohen are back on board, though Campbell has a much smaller part this time around. Cohen and Lustig make a good team. Cohen is one of the giants of B-movie filmmaking. As a writer/director, he's made some of the most wildly interesting cult films of all time. Look at some of these titles: the oddball character study Bone, which plays like a cross between a Cassavetes and Polanski film; the blaxploitation classics Black Caesar and Hell up in Harlem; the killer baby movie It's Alive and its sequels; the Hoover bio-pic The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, which has more wit, energy, and style than every Hollywood bio-pic combined; God Told Me To, the finest mass psychosis/murder spree/detective thriller/alien abduction/artificial insemination/hermaphroditic Christ figure movie with an Andy Kaufman cameo ever made; Full Moon High, a teenage werewolf comedy that preceded Teen Wolf by three years and featured hilarious cameos from Alan Arkin, Ed McMahon, and the guy who played Sanford's son on Sanford & Son; Q: The Winged Serpent, an awesome combination of gritty urban crime film and the giant-monster-terrorizes-a-big-city genre; the Hitchcock by way of De Palma homage, Special Effects, with Eric Bogosian and Zoe Lund; The Stuff, which I still need to see; and The Ambulance, which I can't even begin to describe. I love Larry Cohen. William Lustig is not in Larry Cohen's class, but he's made some fine B-movies himself, including Maniac and Maniac Cop. He hasn't directed a movie since the zombie Gulf War vet film Uncle Sam in 1997, also written by Cohen, but he does quality film restoration work for the Anchor Bay and Blue Underground video companies. I highly recommend those labels. And I recommend Maniac Cop 2.

By the way, Maniac Cop 2 is only available on used VHS and is hard to find in video stores. However, Netflix has recently started offering on-demand copies of movies that aren't on DVD yet, so if you have Netflix and are set up for its instant play feature, you can see Maniac Cop 2 even if your VCR is broken or no longer in existence.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

#58: Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)

Maniac is, plot-wise, nothing but a typical slasher film. A psychopath with mother issues stalks and kills women. That's pretty much all there is to it. However, Maniac is way more interesting than that, for a number of reasons. First, William Lustig, the director, has a keen visual sense with an effective use of color, atmosphere, and framing of shots. He's a B-movie legend, and makes both horror films and urban crime/action movies. Second, Tom Savini handles the special effects and has a bit part. His character is listed in the credits as Disco Boy, though he doesn't look particularly disco-fied. If Savini is involved, the chances are good that the film will not be formulaic. Third, the movie was filmed back when New York City was a sleazy hellhole before Giuliani sanitized everything. You can't fake that sleazy hellhole atmosphere, and Maniac has it all over. It's like the Taxi Driver of slasher films. Finally, Joe Spinell co-wrote, produced, and starred in it.

Joe Spinell was one of the most interesting weirdoes to find a career in the movies. He was about as far from a pretty face as you could imagine, but the camera loved him anyway. He's a charismatic actor who commands your attention. He mostly played small parts, but they were interesting parts in very good films. Just look at some of the titles: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Rancho Deluxe, Farewell My Lovely, 92 in the Shade, Taxi Driver, Stay Hungry, Rocky, Sorcerer, Cruising, Melvin and Howard, Forbidden Zone, Married to the Mob. Spinell's personal life would have made an interesting movie in its own right. A hemophiliac alcoholic and heavy drug user, he also had trouble managing his money and, toward the end of his life, he moved back in with his mother and his sister took control of his finances. His money problems stemmed from his refusal to pay taxes and his habit of paying for every single patron's meals and drinks at the bars and restaurants he frequented. He was kept afloat by his royalty checks from The Godfather, his first film role and his most lucrative. Through a clever working of the system, he was the second-highest paid person on the film even though he only had a small part. Only Marlon Brando got a bigger check than Spinell. Befriending Coppola during his audition, he asked if he could hang around the set during the entire shoot to learn the ins and outs of moviemaking. Coppola agreed, and let him log on each day as an employee. Spinell's personal relationships were very odd. He had a fondness for strippers and strip clubs, and he was briefly married to a porn star, having one child with her. He also had a male personal assistant for most of his career, and they referred to each other as non-sexual boyfriends and lovers. He was also a little too attached to his mother, and friends commented that they would have dated each other if his mother were younger. Her death in the early 1980s threw him into a self-destructive spiral of alcohol and drugs. He died as a result of his hemophilia in 1989, at the age of 52. The police originally thought some kind of horrible murder had occured when they found his body. Spinell kept a severed head prop from Maniac in his apartment, and since he bled to death, his body was found in a rather large amount of blood. The severed head prop was nearby, the police mistaking it for the real thing.

Spinell is in almost every scene of Maniac, and creates a character that is a hybrid of Ed Gein and the Son of Sam. His real-life mother issues permeate the story. The character, Frank Zito, lives in a squalid little efficiency in a rough part of New York. His mother died when he was young, and it messed him up. He murders women, scalps them, and puts their hair on mannequins scattered all over his efficiency. He then whines and cries about the murders after committing them. He finally befriends a woman, a supposedly Italian fashion photographer played by a British actress who decides to just use her real accent instead. Of course, things won't end well.

Maniac has a reputation as being one of the most emotionally disturbing, hard-to-sit-through films ever made, and the National Organization of Women aggressively campaigned against the film, picketing theaters who showed it and calling for its withdrawal from distribution. This probably contributed to its box office success. The film was a surprise hit in 1980. This kerfuffle seems overblown and dated now. The film is far less disturbing than something like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left. The character hates women, but does the film? I don't think so. It's misogynistic in the mundane ways most slasher films are, but it's an interesting little horror movie.
Spinell was so bothered by NOW's criticisms that he decided to write a sequel to defend himself. Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie was about a children's show host who murdered abusive parents. Spinell died shortly after filming began, however, and the movie remains unfinished.