To Protect and to Sever — “Psycho Cop” (1989)

Directed By
Wallace Potts

Version Reviewed

Total Runtime
~1 hour, 23 minutes, 37 seconds

A foot smooshes half a disposable coffee cup. The foot belongs to a bad guy. A single sinister bell clues us in. Whoever it is appears to be inside a house. Tight shots prevent us from seeing much else. He throws on his jacket and steps out of frame. Behind him, drawn in blood on a wall, is a pentagram. Burning candles are attached to the wall at its points. Between the points are three 6s and two inverted crosses. This is some high-level Satanism shit.

The bad guy puts on his hat. His face is now shown, unobscured. It’s the guy from the back of the box, the eponymous villain, whose name appears as one word in the credits. Put your thinking caps away; this killer’s identity won’t be a mystery. He soaks his hands in a bowlful of blood, then holds them up to more candles as part of a dark ritual. Lastly, he puts on his shades, which is foolish considering…

This fractured font recalls Psycho‘s. The music is simple, effective. I like it.

…It’s nighttime on some country highway. Two newlyweds are trying to get back on the interstate. The wife has nice eyes. The husband insists they missed their turn. He pulls over to ask for directions when he spots a motorcycle parked in a field. He gets out, against his wife’s wishes, and wanders into the darkness in search of the driver. A moment later, his wife gets out too. She picks up a flashlight with “Officer Joe Vickers” stamped on it. Beside her, a corpse’s hand flops down Friday the 13th-style, grabbing her shoulder. She turns to see it’s her husband, pinned to a shack by means of a knife thru his forehead.

Cut to: the title character (Bobby Ray Shafer, “Bob Vance” from The Office) cackling in front of a wooded backdrop. “Looks like you need a policeman.” he says with manic affect. His eyeballs are primed to pop off the screen. He lurches after the widow without bending his knees much, in robot or zombie-esque fashion.

The woman’s gut reaction is to call for help with his CB. She fumbles around with the microphone for 3/10 of a second, then gives up and runs off the other way, into the corpse of another woman tied to a pole that she should have — and would have — seen earlier. She backs up in shock. Psychocop sticks his foot out. She trips.

“Oops.” he remarks before choking her. “Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha!” Even his laugh is robotic. The woman’s neck suddenly snaps. For the briefest moment, Psychocop looks perplexed, then he smiles and says “Shouldn’t have run from the police.” Great advice.

From newly wed to newly dead.

The next day, three college couples are on their way to a mansion they’ve rented for a weekend of fun. All six are generically good looking yuppie-types, making them impossible to tell apart without taking notes. According to mine, we’ve got Eric, Julie, Zack, Laura, Doug, and Sarah. The men brag about a wise investment they made that doubled their money. Their pride turns to paranoia when they roll past a squad car implied to be Psychocop’s, even though they agree they’ve done nothing wrong. The fact is, they’re transporting open containers (of beer), so that’s at least one law they’ve broken. The squad car pulls out and tails them from a distance, never turning its lights on. This unnerves them even more.

“There’s something strange about that cop.” Doug points out.

“Yeah,” Laura says, “he just sat there like some kind of a robot.”

Hm, they really want us to think Psychocop is a robot. This is the third hint they’ve dropped in nine minutes. What did Laura expect him to do, smile and wave?

Driver Eric decides to make a stand. He stops in the middle of the road. Everyone turns and stares down the cruiser. Surprisingly, doing this causes it to reverse and change course. Feeling badass from their little show of bravado, Doug tosses an empty beer can out the side of the car. If the opening shot was any indication, Psychocop hates trash. When he sees that can, he’ll be furious.

I can’t believe that worked, guys.

The fun-loving twenty-somethings arrive at the mansion and unpack their stuff. A misleading point-of-view introduces the hunky, denim-clad, axe-toting caretaker employed by the bank that owns the estate. The unnamed, uncredited character gives them a quick tour of the grounds. He starts by explaining the house is bad luck, and finishes by assuring them “We’ve never had any trouble around here before.” Huh? Which is it?

All the while, Psychocop watches on from the edge of the property, drawing pentagrams in the dirt with a stick. His first act is luring the caretaker into the woods by thumping his trusty axe on a tree.

The caretaker follows the noise to a clearing. “Just give me back [my] axe and we’ll call it even.” he says, sensing someone close by. He must not be familiar with the old adage be careful what you wish for, especially in horror movies. His trusty axe flies past his face, missing him by about a foot. He scampers off.

Psychocop pops out in front of him, holding the weapon once more. “Looking for a cop?”

“It can’t be.” the caretaker gasps in disbelief.

“But it is!”

With that, the big bastard baddie in black buries the caretaker’s own axe in his brain. Thick, sappy blood oozes out.

I have questions. How did Psychocop have enough time to retrieve the axe he just threw and still pop out ahead of the caretaker? Also, what’s with his lines? None of them have been clever, yet I get the impression they’re supposed to be funny. I can’t even call them “one-liners”, as those are by definition witty. These are just factual statements. I could come up with better myself. Off the top of my head:

There’s a new sheriff in town.
You’re in my jurisdiction now.
I’ve got you dead to rights.
I’m issuing you a die-tation.
Stop resisting.
I’m authorized to use lethal force.
I take no prisoners.
I sentence you to death.
Here comes the long arm of the law (punches them).
Caught you red-handed (stabs their hand).
I’m dropping the hammer (hammers them).
I’m throwing the book at you (hurls a dictionary at their face).
I’m charging you with battery (electrocutes them with a car battery).
You fought the law… and the law won.
Now that’s what I call police brutality.
I’m getting away with murder.
Something something habeas corpses.

I’m not saying these are great, cos they’re not, but my point is, there were countless police puns just begging to be made, and so far this movie’s missed all of them. It’s mystifying.

[continued below]

Thoughts (Possible Spoilers)
Anyway, let’s check back in with our heroes. They’re partying poolside. Doug looks concerned. He stands up and turns off the boombox, which he calls a ghetto blaster. “I thought I heard someone screaming.” I’m not sure how, the caretaker didn’t.

“Doug, you’re imagining things.” Julie says. “It was the rock music.” I love how she specifies “rock”, when that part is implied. It makes her sound like a churchgoing mom.

Doug shrug offs his auditory hallucination and fires up the grill. Zack drinks way too much beer. Julie loses her hairbrush, upsetting her. Eric harshes their otherwise good vibe by repeating something shocking from his radio. A local woman is missing and “signs of devil worship” were found in her yard — specifically, a scalped dog and the number 666 carved into a tree. More high-level Satanism shit.

Psychocop watches on from the pool shed, grinning. The camera moves down to his hand, where “666” is written in pen. Doug grabs some charcoal from the place he was standing and sees footprints.

Sick tat.

As time goes on, the protagonists grow increasingly concerned about the caretaker, a person they met only once, for less than two minutes, because Doug may have heard a scream. What good people. They finally decide to go look for him when they can’t get the jacuzzi working. During their game of detective, they observe tire tracks in a clearing and six big crosses made out of logs. Maybe that’s what that chopping sound was.

Fearing something’s not right, the characters send Eric back to the pool shed to call for help with a phone that just rests on a small shelf outside the shed for some reason. Won’t it get rained on? Doesn’t matter, it’s dead. Psychocop rounds the corner and tells Eric not to worry; he drove the caretaker to the hospital. This puts everyone’s mind at ease for the time being.

That evening, the girls take a bubble bath together (without showing their tatas) cos that’s what friends do. A shadow inexplicably runs past the second-story bathroom window. Julie and Sarah conclude that it must have been Eric when they spy him through another window looking for his toothbrush. Laura has her doubts.

Eric leaves his radio outside, atop a retaining wall, missing a newscast about disgraced local police officer “Joe Vickers”, the name inscribed on the flashlight found by the wife with nice eyes. Vickers, the newscast reports, went AWOL in the midst of brutality charges. Psychocop’s hand turns the radio off. We later learn that he’s actually an orphan named Gary Henley, who renounced God for failing to find him a family. He’s also a third person (?!) — escaped serial killer Ted Warnicky. It isn’t explained how the latter, who would have been added quite promptly to the FBI’s “Most Wanted Fugitives” list, was able to infiltrate law enforcement, or why he risked doing it. Who conducted his background check? Seems like a plot hole to me.

When night falls and the caretaker hasn’t returned to his trailer, the protagonists start to get worried again.

I wish I had friends like this. Mine don’t even text me on my birthday.

Sarah opens the cooler. No beer. Everyone blames Zack for drinking it. Zack begrudgingly volunteers to buy more. He gets in the car and heads down the driveway. His trip is short-lived, though, as he’s forced to swerve to avoid hitting a branch that’s been dragged across the road. While stopped, he conveniently finds extra beer on the floor of the front passenger seat. That’s when he looks up and sees something queer in the rearview — the squad car from earlier. He gets out prepared to explain himself, for what, I have no idea. The beer isn’t open this time. There’s no cop in sight. He gets back in the car. He reaches down for the keys. They’ve vanished. Psychocop materializes beside him and chokes him. Zack knees him in the balls and runs off. Psychocop magically pops out in front of him, not once, but twice. “You have the right to remain silent.” he quips, before ramming a nightstick down Zack’s throat. Hey, a joke! That’s more like it!

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Doug and Laura deduce that a prowler is taking their stuff. The other three aren’t convinced. Doug and Laura check the caretaker’s trailer once more to be safe. Audio of what sounds like a death scene from a horror movie emanates from the caretaker’s TV. I can make out a sinister recitation of Star Light, Star Bright and someone calling someone else “Billy Boy” between screams. Eric bursts out the door. Doug and Laura ask him what he’s doing and lecture him on unlawful entry. Eric claims he’s only stealing batteries. It feels like this scene is supposed to mislead us into thinking Eric might be involved in the caretaker’s disappearance. Problem is, we already know for a fact that he ain’t, so…

Julie brushes her hair by the pool. A voice whispers her name. She walks left to investigate, passing the boombox. She turns around and the boombox is gone. Her brush is gone too. Like before, this upsets her. I’m starting to think her and her brush are more than just friends. She follows the sound of the boombox into the woods, where she spots her beloved tool jammed handle-first in the ground. She bends down to get it. “If you’ve gotten dirt all over it, I’m gonna kill you.” Two lights flick on. It’s Psychocop in his car. He floors it. Julie runs away in a straight line. Psychocop gently taps her with his front bumper. She lands in a comfy-looking pile of twigs and stops living.

The remaining four hear the boombox blasting a beat that goes “in this ocean of mixed emotion” and track it to the scene of the crime. They discover a shoe. They freak out. They calm down a smidge when they see the car parked by the house full of beer, because they interpret that as meaning Zack is ok. Spoiler: he’s not. Doug shows Laura the footprints he found in the pool shed earlier. This is actual dialogue.

Laura: “So somebody’s… been spying on us all day?”

Doug: “Not somebody. A man. A big man by the size of these footprints.”

I love how dramatic Doug is. Bobby Ray Shafer is big, but not terribly so when compared to the rest of the cast. Doug makes him out to be Sasquatch.

Sucker’s gotta be fifteen, no, sixteen feet tall.

Doug and Laura figure out what’s happening at about the 52 minute mark — fitting, considering they’re the ones who initially mentioned how “strange” Psychocop seemed. They decide to burn rubber. Guess what? The car is dead.

Eric breaks away to go looking for girlfriend Julie and gets tasered for his troubles. “Tired? Rundown? Need some energy?” Zap! This joke’s not the best, but I’ll take it.

Doug and Laura sprint toward his screams, leaving the only other survivor, Sarah, alone at the house. After finding a dead cat impaled to a tree and “666” written in blood, they realize their mistake and rush to save Sarah. By some logic, it takes them over three minutes to get back to the house. How big is this property?

Regrettably, Sarah lets Psychocop in the front door, assuming he’s sane. She brings him a cold beer from the fridge. Her gaze falls upon a butcher knife he’s placed within arm’s length of himself. “Hey, what’s going on?”

“This!” Psychocop grabs the knife and gives chase.

Sarah goes for the front door, but can’t escape cos the keyhole side of the lock faces inward and Psychocop has the key. I’ve never once encountered an inward-facing lock in real life. Have you? I suspect they only exist in movies, just as guinea pigs only exist in captivity. Sarah zips up the stairs, barricades a door with a daybed, and hides in the bathroom. She checks to see if the coast is clear. Psychocop pops out and slams her into a wall. “Hard wall.” he croaks like a toad. “You’re under arrest.”

I… I can’t even with… what?

He handcuffs her to a doorknob and moves in for the kill.

Doug and Laura show up too little too late. They instantly recognize Psychocop’s muddy footprints as the ones from the pool shed and run off into the woods again. They find the caretaker’s body and take his keys. They peel away in his car, leaving Psychocop in the dust. What happens next is preposterous. The Hell-E-O, who was hundreds of feet away, reaches in from the roof of the car. That’s right, he blatantly teleports. He grabs onto the steering wheel. “Turning! Turning! Turning!” he laughs like a toddler. He lets go and slides off the car just before it collides with another one of his logs. Unable to escape, Doug and Laura must fight for their lives. Who will survive?


Psycho Cop is writer/director Wallace Potts’ second and final stab at the horror genre. It went straight to video in November, 1989, a year and a half after Maniac Cop premiered in New York. It’s often considered a rip-off of Will Lustig’s movie, and was likely conceived as such. However, the fact of the matter is, they have little in common, beside of course their titles and villain’s profession.

In episode 4 of Deluxe Edition: Yet Another Pop Culture Podcast, Psychocop himself, Bobby Ray Shafer, is asked about the connection. “The weird thing that happened was, we ended up with the same distributor, and there was a big lawsuit about the artwork being similar.” *

Unless the artwork they used for the poster and VHS release was a re-design, I just don’t see it. The image, of a giant faceless policeman overlooking a city street, is in my opinion far more imitative of Deadly Dreams (1988) and Jason Takes Manahttan (July, 1989) than Maniac Cop. The real issue is that it suggests an urban setting despite Psycho Cop taking place entirely in the woods and other rural locations. Hey, that’s VHS for ya!

Linda West (Sarah) told me it was filmed over “a couple months” in Malibu Creek State Park and at a rental property somewhere in The San Fernando Valley. This clears up a reference Eric makes to “Route 23”, as one of the roads with that name runs through Los Angeles and Ventura counties, California. I suspect the emblem on the side of Psychocop’s car also contains the name of a city or county. I say suspect because it’s too hard to read in the poor quality VHS rip on YouTube. As far as I can tell, this movie’s never had a proper DVD release sourced from a film print. A damn shame.

In the same interview cited above, Shafer laughs “The only reason that [producer Cassian] Elwes made the movie was because he liked the title. He never even read the script!” He then tells how Potts and producer Jessica Raines (daughter of Claude Raines) sent him to Elwes’ office in character, in full police uniform to “shake [Elwes] loose” i.e. get him to commit to funding the movie.

He goes on to confirm he and Adam Rifkin AKA “Rif Coogan” (director, Psycho Cop Returns) are raising money for Part 3, which he says will be told from the killer’s perspective and put a hip-hop spin on the series.

That’s a yikes from me, dawg.

As bad as that sounds, it can’t be much worse than what we’ve got here. I won’t mince words, Psychocop stinks. It’s a corny camp slasher with — to paraphrase one of the victims — “a list of problems a mile long”. Its most glaring problem has to be its unnatural-sounding dialogue and matching delivery.

Bobby Ray Shafer takes the cake. His performance is downright grating at times. It’s not wholly his fault, though. He claims he was told to be “robotic” by Potts, and was even brought back to re-record lines that weren’t deemed robotic enough. As proof, watch the sequel; his body language and voice are more natural there. It’s unclear why Potts associated robotic behavior with Satanism.

Speaking of the sequel, it’s interesting to see how the two incarnations of the character differ. In Part 1, he tries to kill every single person he encounters, to please Satan and by extension gain superpowers. In Part 2, he’s selective when it comes to his victims. He exhibits a warped sense of morality, punishing people for unethical acts such as bribery and adultery, just like coeval — or should I say co-evil? — Angela Baker in Sleepaway Camp 2 & 3.

German VHS artwork for Psycho Cop II. The tagline translates to “Corpses pave his way, because not every cop is a good cop.”

Another major problem with Psycho Cop is that it doesn’t lean as far into the cop angle as I expected. As I’ve already mentioned, the lack of police puns seems like a missed opportunity.

It doesn’t feel like the setting is used to its fullest potential either. Not having a pool or jacuzzi death is plain wack. When the caretaker shows the protagonists around, he informs them the (flood?) lights turn off at midnight, and that the jacuzzi switch has a habit of getting stuck. I thought for sure he was setting up scenes where those factors come into play, but he wasn’t, and they don’t.

Furthermore, nothing really happens in-between kills, mainly because the protagonists weren’t given a whole lot to do. They spend most of their time puzzling over misplaced items — including hairbrushes, toothbrushes, purses, frozen boxes of soup (soup comes frozen, in boxes?), sneakers, and cans of beer — worrying about the caretaker, and trying to shake the ever-present feeling that someone is watching them. I’d say they read too far into things, but all their fears and gut feelings prove accurate.

The lone piece of trivia found on IMDb claims the caretaker is referred to over thirty times after his death. By my count, it’s closer to twenty-two. Then again, I only tallied instances of the words “caretaker” and “guard”, not “he”. Any way you slice it, that’s super excessive. Reminds me of Homer’s proposal for Poochie in season 8, episode 14 of The Simpsons.

Disclaimer: not a legit quote.

Lastly, Psycho Cop loses steam in the final act from an overreliance on pop-out surprise attacks and feeling like it doesn’t know where to go or what to do. One good thing about the end is that it offers an explanation as to why the title character refrains from shooting everyone to begin with — “Satan doesn’t like bullets.” It also features what I call a “corpse reunion”, a scene where the sole survivor stumbles into a room or site where the killer has stored and positioned the bodies. You can find more corpse reunions in Sleepaway Camp 2 & 3, Puppet Master, and Happy Birthday to Me, among other slashers.

Here’s the thing about me, guys. I typically re-watch the movies I plan to review several times, to ensure what I write down is accurate. Doing so often has the unintended effect of making me like the movies even more. It’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome, and it happened again. I wasn’t totally sold on Psycho Cop at first. Now, I love it. So do my kids. The other day, I overheard my daughter tell my son “Pretend I’m Psychocop” before chasing him all around the house.

So, yeah, the movie has flaws, but you know what? It’s fun. Cheesy mindless fun. And in some ways, it even stands out from the crowd. For one, the characters, as poorly written and acted as they are, break from convention by listening to their instincts and being good people. There’s also a conspicuous lack of nudity, and if you listen closely, only one cuss word — unless you count “damn”, “tits”, or “hell”, which I don’t. The violence is pretty tame, too.

These aspects, taken together, give this otherwise typical slasher an uncharacteristic innocence, especially compared to the shameless rock and roll excess of Psycho Cop Returns.

Shafer attributes the movie’s modest nature to Potts being a “stuffy Southern gentleman”. While it’s true Potts was “southern” and a “gentleman”, he was no stranger to having people undress on camera. He spent his late 20s/early 30s directing adult films in the US and France. According to IMDB, at least three.

Le Beau Mec (1979), for example, which translates to “The Handsome Guy”, is as far from “stuffy” as it gets. It’s chock-full of hardcore gay sex, including oral, anal, ass eating & fingering. It also contains the line “Yeah, I do fist-fucking. Both ways. I give and take it. It’s not a problem when you’re stoned.”

Unlike a lot of golden age porn, it’s virtually plotless, consisting of sex scenes and cutaway shots strung together with voiceover narration. There’s only one instance of “dialogue”, but you can’t see the guy being talked to, so I don’t count it anyway. It’s worth noting that one actor wears a police uniform.

Potts’ other pornos were too elusive for me. My quest for info on More, More, More (1976) only turned up results for the hit disco song of the same name from the same year by Andrea True, who was, by some strange coincidence, a pornographic actress. What are the chances of that? You’ve heard the song. I know you have. Len sampled it in “Steal My Sunshine”.

By the time Potts made Psycho Cop, he’d improved as a filmmaker. Whether you like it or not, he showed talent here, at least in terms of staging scenes and shots, maybe not in terms of getting good performances. His uninspired dialogue, on the other hand, combined with the plotlessness of Le Beau Mec, make me think writing just wasn’t his strong suit.

The same year Potts made Le Beau Mec, he began dating world-renowned ballerino Rudolf Nureyev. Many years later — from 1993 until his death in 2006 — he worked for the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, archiving all known footage of the Russian-born dancer, including some that he filmed himself. That’s what he’s known for today.

It does seem odd that a lover of high art like ballet would lower himself to making pornos and cheesy slashers, but I’m sure equally sophisticated gentlepeople have churned out worse. I’m drawing a blank, so leave an example in the comment section below.

Body Count
10 humans, 1 cat, 1 dog (alluded to but not shown). The scary thing is, it’s still lower than most American cops’ these days.

Bod Count

Overall Enjoyability
666 hairbrushes out of 1,110, or ★★★☆☆.

I Got My Copy From

Evil Altar (1988)

Further Listening

*UPDATE — from the November 17th, 1989 edition of the Miami Herald:

…The artisitc exploration of a similar moral theme by two different filmmakers created an identity crisis that could only be resolved in court. Makers of the movie Maniac Cop persuaded a judge to stop the video distribution of Psycho Cop, arguing that Psycho Cop is in many ways a “virtual duplicate” of their Maniac Cop. The most damning evidence was a comparison of the two slogans: For Maniac Cop, it’s “No one knows his name, no one knows his face.” For Psycho Cop, the slogan is “He has no name, he has no face.”