Dueling Blus: Maniac Cop

So we've had Maniac Cop 2 and 3 restored in 4k, first on blu, and now UHD.  But where's the original?  I mean, it is on blu with a few solid extras, which puts it ahead of plenty of other great horror titles I could name.  But still, it feels pretty meager to have the original cult classic lagging so far behind its sequels.  And what's up with the blus we do have?  There's a Synapse and an Arrow disc, both over ten years old now, and the original DVD from Elite, all with different extras.  If we're not going to get a swag UHD, what edition(s) should we get in 2021?
1988's Maniac Cop has a bit of a different tone from its more kinetic sequels.  All three are written by Larry Cohen and directed by William Lustig, and several of the stars, including Robert Z'Dar as the titular maniac cop, are carried over.  But where the sequels are more action-packed slashers, this is more of a mystery thriller.  The first film has the big question, "who is the maniac cop?" to hang its hat on, where the subsequent entries are pushed more into "he's back!" revenge motifs.  It's not even clear if there's anything supernatural meant to be going on in this film, or if maniac is just one bad, tough dude.  Whereas, in the sequels, he's a full-fledged monster with a skull face ultimately powered by voodoo magic.  Think of the difference between Jason Vorhees pre- and post-Jason Lives.
Budget probably plays a factor, too.  The sequels clearly have more money to play with, allowing Lustig to create some wild set-pieces with exploding buses and a full-fledged assault on a crowded police station.  But a film having to rely a bit more on the wits of Cohen's pen is never a bad thing.  And to be fair, this film climaxes with an awfully impressive stunt.  Luckily, though, the original film has more great ideas to lean on, making it - arguably - still the best.  And like all three, it's packed with terrific character actors, including cult fave Tom Atkins, Shaft himself Richard Roundtree, Sheree North, Laurene Landon, Cohen regular Jim Dixon and Bruce frikkin' Campbell, hot off of Evil Dead 2 just the year before.  Sam Raimi even has a bit part.  It's got an iconic theme and a practically can't miss premise based on the fraught tension between the comfort of police's role as protector and the terror of their unchecked power over of us.  ...I say "practically," because 1989's Psycho Cop went on to prove that no concept is infallible in the wrong hands.
So Elite originally released Maniac Cop on DVD in 1998, essentially a port of their laserdisc, replete with the same special features including a terrific audio commentary by Lustig, Cohen, Campbell and composer Jay Chattaway.  In 2006, Synapse reissued it on DVD (the first anamorphic option) with a few more extras and some audio remixes.  It naturally followed in 2011, then, when Synapse gave the film its HD debut on blu.  But for some reason the commentary disappeared!  Arrow released their blu a couple weeks later in the UK, also without the commentary, but with some of their own unique features.  But which edition is better?  Is there much of a difference?  Let's have a look.
1) 2006 Synapse DVD; 2) 2011 Synapse BD; 3) 2011 Arrow BD.
Okay, so at first glance, we seem to be using the same master across the board.  It's all the same 1.84:1 AR with the same color timing.  Although looking a little more carefully, we see the DVD is cropped a bit tighter (check out Victoria Catlin's button).  Obviously, the DVD is also blurrier than its HD counterparts.  But how do the two blu-rays compare?  That's what we've got to decide between now.  Well, with the same master, the difference is basically going to come down to the encode, if there's any noteworthy difference at all.  So let's take a look at some enlargements.
1) 2011 Synapse BD; 2) 2011 Arrow BD.
[A quick reminder, whenever I provide these enlargements: they're just meant as handy visual aids for quick reference, so you can easily see what I'm talking about.  The full-sized, original screenshots are posted further above.  You're encouraged to click through them if you really want to examine them properly.]

Neither disc is exactly cutting edge.  Grain is a bit light and neither option is free of macro-blocking.  That said, Arrow clearly has the edge with less blocking a slightly more distinct grain.  In the second set of shots, we see more of the threads in Victoria's gown, which are smeared out in Synapse's disc.  In motion, especially on a modestly sized screen, the difference might be practically invisible.  But there is a difference, so if you're fishing for the best PQ available, Arrow does pull ahead.  Also, their contrast is slightly higher, which I personally prefer.

So Synapse's DVD has the original stereo mix, plus its new Dolby 5.1 and DTS-ES 6.1 remixes.  All three tracks are carried over to their blu, though now as lossless DTS-HD tracks.  Arrow doesn't bother with the remixes, which is A-Okay in my book, but does preserve the original stereo in lossless LPCM.  More significantly, it is the only disc with optional English subtitles.  So if you have a use for those, the advantage shifts further to Arrow.
The mayor, as only seen in the Japanese TV footage.
Before we make any final decisions, though, we've got to look at those extras.  I've already explained the situation with the commentary.  It's great and a real shame neither blu has it.  Hang onto your DVDs, folks.  But there's more than the commentary at stake here.  Synapse's DVD also had a new interview with Z'Dar, deleted scenes filmed for Japanese television (featuring Leo Rossi and Ken Lerner!), plus a couple trailers, TV and radio spots.  Synapse's blu keeps all of that except the commentary, and adds a few more juicy bits.  The highlights are new, on-camera interviews with Tom Atkins and actor/ stuntman Danny Hicks, but there's also a couple more trailers and a stills gallery.  If it wasn't for that commentary, it would be a nice upgrade.

Meanwhile, Arrow has also chucked the commentary.  It's also missing those deleted scenes, which is a real loss, plus a couple of the foreign trailers.  But it does have a couple trailers and TV spots.  And much more critically, it has its own collection of original extras.  It has its own, different interviews with Atkins (who also provides a brief, spoiler-y intro) and Z'Dar.  And the real highlights: a couple nice on-camera interviews with Larry Cohen and Laurene Landon.  You know, the Z'Dar and Atkins interview are pretty interchangeable, but they're not interviewed on the other discs at all.  Arrow's release also came with a 16-page booklet, a poster, and one of those windowed-slipboxes allowing for your choice of four reversible artwork covers.
Meanwhile, Lustig has been pretty candid about how unhappy he is with how Maniac Cop looks on disc (skip to 22:31), "Maniac Cop is a sore spot for me because the company that put it out really did not do a proper job with the film," He explained on the In the Seats With... podcast, adding, "that lousy Synapse blu-ray is the only thing that stands."  Specifically, he objects to the color timing.  "The simple problem is we shot the movie in August with a film that's supposed to take place in the winter in New York.  And if you look at the original negative, it's got the warmth of summer, and it's still bright.  It's got a lot of brightness to it.  And so it needed to be graded for what time of year it's supposed to be; and it's supposed to be a darker looking film.  Because at times you actually can see the partial make-up on the maniac cop's face.  It's horrifying.  Things like that should've been corrected.  You also see the wires that could've been removed... things like that that just is, to me, terrible.  I mean, look, remove the wires, it costs nothing.  And yet it was just left.  So to me, I'm looking at it as kind of a bad behind the scenes.  It's horrible because we put a lot of work - a lot of people, not just myself - a lot of the people who worked on that worked hard and cared about it, and now it was put out by an idiot."

So okay, sounds like a new edition is in order.  Actually, some of that corrective revisionism I'm happy to have missed out on.  But still, there's obviously plenty of room for improvement.  Unfortunately, any prospects along those lines aren't looking too bright.  Lustig explained, "recently, I inquired about the negative of Maniac Cop and was told, unfortunately, it's lost.  So it's not preserved."  Meaning: we're probably stuck with what we've got, at least for now.  Given that, what should we make out of our current options?  Well, just in terms of the ideal viewing experience, Arrow is the go-to disc (especially if subtitles are a concern).  But if you're invested in extras, it's hopelessly complicated.  You've still got to hang onto one of the old DVDs for the commentary, and even then... well, frustratingly, serious fans are going to want all three.  You kinda can't win.  But on the other hand, I've seen far worse releases, and if you're willing to collect multiple editions, it adds up to a fairly stacked special edition.  To put it in perspective, remember Psycho Cop fans are stuck tracking down barebones, grey market DVDs.

1 comment:

  1. I can totally understand Lustig's complaints about color timing - the Synapse blu looks positively drab imo, the colors are so flat it reminds me of ungraded digital RAW footage. But I have to disagree with him on removing wires and makeup edges. Those would have been just as visible in the theater when they were projecting the 35mm prints, right? Last thing I want is a special-editioned movie. We already got The Evil Dead fucked with. That was disgusting enough.