Dir. Sam Raimi
With Sam Raimi receiving deserving praise for a return to form with Drag Me to Hell, it seems proper time to revisit the most ignored film in the Raimi canon, his sophomore experiment, Crimewave (ok, For Love of the Game probably follows a close second, but one can’t help but feel that was some sort of elaborate joke….. Right?)
Back in 1984, Mr. Raimi was in the entirely unenviable position of directing a follow-up to his labor-of-love, The Evil Dead, a film so unique and influential it really does deserve the impossible praise it receives. In tow were a couple of brothers (whom shall remain anonymous, as per request by their legacy) who also made an incredible smash with an even better film, Blood Simple. The task was to pay homage to action serials, screwball comedies and Tex Avery cartoons, all in one neat entertainment bundle. Friends amongst friends, making the kind of elaborate free-for-all that only best friends can create together… “You mean a studio really has to be attached? Awwww man!!!”
I loved Crimewave as a kid. I lucked upon on an HBO showing sometime in the ‘90s, just as I was firmly getting into film. This whole process was largely thanks to the Coen Brothers (whoops…), with Fargo being perhaps the catalyst for my nearly epic snobbery. You can pretty much thank them for this blog entirely when it really comes down to it.
However, when I sat down to watch this film, I hadn’t a clue what it was. It was immediately captivating its visual style, perhaps that’s what drew me in. Of course it was; 14 or not, pretty pictures still draw me in like no other. After all, why make a boring-looking film? Anyways, this film was particularly striking in my mind thanks to its unparalleled color palate. I mean, this film really stretches the bounds of taste with its use of colors, and that is no doubt its greatest asset. I made it through the mad-cappery and the buffoonery, only to watch the credits, and see my favorite people in the whole wide world under “Written By.” Why hadn’t I heard of this film?! What an extraordinarily singular film to be buried in some vault! Why isn’t this spoken of in Coen lore?
Well, years have passed, and I found myself thinking in the recesses of my mind; has Crimewave still not seen a DVD release? Well, Region 2 has it, and well lookee there, Netflix has it too! So, question begs the answer, with the No Country For Spider Men, how is it that Crimewave still is shoved under the rug?!?!?
Well, because, in spite of its sweet little exterior, Crimewave is an absolute mess. But there are few things in this world that excite me more than a disastrous cinematic failure from a true visionary, or in this case, visionaries. Even better are ones that are DISOWNED by its creators. Ohhhhhhh baby.
Thus brings us to the film. Crimewave is a celebration of excess, but not in the current Michael Bay school of excess. Rather, it’s an embrace of slapstick cartoons as a primary influence, as well as a nod to the screwball comedies both Raimi and the Coens have culled from for years. In fact, Crimewave bears more than a passing resemblance to the Coens’ own Raising Arizona, made two years after Crimewave. The editing of this film runs at a mile a minute, the camera seems to float with no gravity at all, and the sound design is comprised almost entirely of Tex Avery/Chuck Jones sound effects; yes, even down to the “tweet tweet” sound when a character is hit with blunt objects. Raising Arizona has all of this as well at times, but really the thing missing most from this film is a cast of characters anyone could really give a damn about. These characters are dull and lifeless, and exist only to advance the plot, or lack-thereof.
The plot of this film is really too dull to recount. There’s a nerdy security officer, some murders, a couple of exterminators who kill people, a damsel in distress, a haggard housewife, and so on. What differs here of course, being a Raimi film and all, are the choices of actors. The exterminators in particular, played by Paul L. Smith and the late, great Brion James, seem to be the only ones completely in on the cartoon joke, delivering performances so over-the-top they can only be termed as creepy. It’s quite simple, Smith grunts and mumbles a la Bluto from Popeye (who, not so coincidentally, he actually played in Altman’s Popeye, a film I’m frankly dying to revisit), and James squeaks and shrieks like a rat. The film can be quite trying to one’s patience when these two are on screen, if for no other reason than the radical sound design drowning out any sort of rational thought, but yet the film is oddly only watchable when these two appear. It’s quite a feat really, having the audacity to pummel the audience with almost unbearable noise, whilst delivering some of the most innovative set pieces and camera trickery you’re likely to see. Case in point:
Of course, Crimewave is one of those ever-present victims of the studio placing their grip over every inch of the film. We are unlikely to ever see a cut that Raimi would approve of, but it’s tough to say if there’s even a good film in there. This was a troubled production from the get-go, with Raimi expressing that the filming was the worst period of his entire life, and the stars being rotated around constantly. (Reportedly, Bruce Campbell was intended to be the star of the film, but instead was relegated to a bit part. Honestly, this is probably for the best, because his part as a sleazy womanizer is just too much fun.)
What we really have in Crimewave is a testing ground for techniques that Raimi, and the Coens for that matter, would implement to much better degree later on. Raimi would develop the live-action cartoon aesthetic quite beautifully in both Evil Dead 2 and Darkman, and the Coens would maintain a thread of that throughout their careers as well, certainly with Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy in particular. And while I’ve spent nearly this whole time complaining about the film’s faults, it really is a fascinating watch. Raimi’s camera gets smoother in this film, his compositions tighter, and his experiments with lighting are truly breathtaking at times. All of this is quite impressive for a guy coming off as low-budget of a film as seemed possible at the time. Though not in the price range of The Evil Dead, Crimewave was hardly given an epic budget, and if there’s anything Raimi excels at, it’s what he can squeeze out of a buck. This sequence in particular is the kind of home-made centerpiece from Raimi that just melts my heart:
In the end, Crimewave isn’t quite that “should’ve remained in my rose-colored childhood memories” film, given that it is so deeply bizarre that I can see why it appealed to me. The film is an intriguing disaster, one that deserves a watch if one can find it (torrents are always good, but Netflix has it too). I understand the film distresses its makers, but what I wouldn’t give to hear a good honest commentary from Raimi about this film. It embodies the sophomore slump, sure, but few have done it with such gusto. He didn’t just make some run-of-the-mill studio film here; he made one of those beautiful moments in film lore where you can’t help but ask, “Who in their right mind financed this?” You just have to appreciate that.
And now, without further ado, here’s Bruce just being Bruce.