Wednesday, September 3, 2008

mania...


So, a couple of weekends ago Anthology Film Archives had their New York Vigilantes weekend, and that was pretty cool. Friday night a friend and I made it out to "Maniac Cop" and "Maniac Cop 2," with a Q&A from director Bill Lustig. I'd seen both films before and actually also met Bill before and heard him speak, but all those things made me even more eager for these screenings. The "Maniac Cop" films are a ton of fun, and Lustig is a very charming, funny, open speaker. For someone who started his career in hardcore porn (as many low budget filmmakers in NYC did in the 1970s) and went on to make the reasonably extreme gore film "Maniac" in the early 1980s, he exudes a great deal of warmth, a sense of generosity and kindness, almost paternal. Even when he's talking about the difficulties of making these films, there's a sense of affection in his narrative. As far as filmmakers I've met or seen speaking, he is definitely one of the most unexpectedly undearing, and perhaps the most endearing overall.

Despite their horror themes, the "Maniac Cop" pictures really work best as action movies. Indeed, they're both constructed primarily around impressive chase sequeneces and stunt setpieces. "Maniac Cop 2," in particular, has some really memorable moments, including Claudia Christian handcuffed to and hanging out the window of an out-of-control cop car with no driver, the Maniac Cop's assault on a police station which has him throwing victims dozens of feet through the air and through glass and wood partitions, and the final assault by the Maniac Cop, entirely engulfed in flames, on Riker's Island. Lustig expressed some regret that the effects technology on this last sequence was not up to snuff by today's standards, but personally, for me, it worked, simply because the scene is so outrageous to begin with, I like being able to see the seams a little bit, anything too slick might spoil the general spirit of spectacle, as even though these digital effects are a bit smoother looking, they really don't generate any greater sense of reality than practical, physical stunts like having a stunt man in a fire suit lumbering through a prison set, grabbing other stunt men and setting them on fire, then throwing them off of guardrails and stuff. It's some pretty good shit.

The "Maniac Cop" films, which, it should be noted, were co-written and produced by my favorite martian Larry Cohen (director of Q, Bone, the Stuff, It's Alive, Black Ceasar and a gaggle other great low budget films), also provide a showcase of some of the cinema's best character actors. In addition to the oddly shaped Robert Z'Dar, who plays the Maniac Cop in both films, we get Bruce Campbell of the Evil Dead as the star of the first, and B-Movie fixture Robert Davi as the star of the second. The first film also features Laurene Landon, a regular in Larry Cohen's films, with Tom Atkins (Night of the Creeps), Richard "Shaft" Roundtree, gravel voiced drive-in icon William Smith, Sheree Noth (who started acting in the 1950s, and later played Kramer's mom on "Seinfeld"), and in small roles boxer Jake LaMotta (subject of "Raging Bull," like I gotta tell you that), Frank Pesce (a regular in Lustig's films), b-movie legend George 'Buck' Flower (also in "Criminally Insane"), filmmaker Sam Raimi and Lustig himself. The second film, meanwhile, features the aforementioned Z'Dar, Davi, Campbell, Landon and Claudia Christian (who played Bill's mom on "Freaks & Geeks" and was also on "Babylon 5," which I've never seen, but I expect it's her most well-known role. She was also in the great, underrated sci-fi flick "The Hidden") with Coehn bros. regular Michael Lerner, the frequently underutilized Clarence Williams III (Link from the "Mod Squad," he's also had supporting roles in "Purple Rain," "52 Pick Up," Norman Mailer's "Tough Guys Don't Dance," "Tales from the Hood," "Half Baked" and Amos Poe's "Frogs for Snakes."), Lustig regular Leo Rossi (viturally unrecognizable with a southern accent and big bushy beard), Jonathan Demme regular Charles Napier (who also appeared on the original Star Trek show and in Russ Meyer movies- there's a fucking boss trifecta for ya!), Robert (father of James) Earl Jones (also in Monte Hellman's "Cockfighter " (one of my favorite films), "Trading Places," "Sleepaway Camp," and "The Cotton Club"- he lived to be like 96!), Pesce and Raimi again, plus, very briefly, Danny Trejo and Shelly Desai (the very recognizable and funny character actor who played the overly excitable janitor in Larry David's office building on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," not to mention roles- often as prisoners- in "Phantom of the Paradise" (again, one of my favorite films), "Short Eyes," and Larry Cohen's "Q." Phew, that's a lot of talent.

I think also, as much as these movies are fun, they also get at something really prescient about urban living in the 1980s. There was such a power sense of fear back then- this is like the crack era that I'm talking about, which was totally peaking around 1988, when Maniac Cop came out, and 1990, when Maniac Cop 2 came out, violent crime in cities totally spiked, and the police weren't necessarily viewed as either especially helpful nor especially safe to run to- this is only a few years before Rodney King, but the sense was already there, I think for a lot of people, I mean obviously minorities and people who were being specifically targeting by the cops, racially profiled and victimized, but I think also everybody. Around 1991 there were some riots in the neighborhood I grew up in DC, and I mean the fucking riots were scary in and of themselves, but the police presence just added a sense of menace on top of that, and no real feelings of safety of comfort. I mean, the first "Maniac Cop" came out the same year as NWA's "Fuck tha Police." I don't think the fear of a "Maniac Cop" rampaging through New York City (or any major metro) was too far from a lot of people's minds, nor is it today, as law enforcement agencies are increasingly being given carte blanche to turn a blind eye to their victim's civil rights in the name of homeland security, although the actual chances of any of us falling victim to a terrorist attack are really no more or less than they were before September 11th (god, I'll be so fucking glad when the republicans are out of the fucking white house)...

Wow, I was going to write about some other films too, but this turned out longer than I planned, so I'll save "Hamlet 2" for next time. Anyway, watch all the "Maniac Cops," even the third one, which isn't as good and Lustig himself admits to not caring about as much, or even having seen in a long time, despite his name on the director's credit (I think he and Cohen wound up leaving the production of that one). In the meantime, don't forget to do whatever, or something, there was a joke there but I forgot it...(Bill Lustig, by the way, now runs the Blue Underground DVD company, which puts out lots of great, weird exploitation, art and Eurotrash films including David Cronenberg's "Fast Company," Lucio Fulci's "Four of the Apocalypse" and "Don't Torture a Duckling," Armando Crispino's "Autopsy," George Romero's "The Crazies," Harry Kumel's "Daughters of Darkness," Bob Clark's "Deathdream," Kathryn Bigelow's "The Loveless" and films by Alan Clarke and Larry Cohen, to name a few that I like)...

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