Skip to main content

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave
(1985)

(SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave. But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

I’ll go to bat for a fair few so-called disasters, The likes of Hudson Hawk (an unparalleled masterpiece) and Last Action Hero are due a genuine rehabilitation, rather than simply a cult-circles one. Crimewave can’t quite scale such levels, because it has a fundamental problem, although it’s one it shares with Last Action Hero. Casting. Bruce Campbell, however, who was a victim of said casting, has it that “Crimewave was a lesson about abject failure – no matter how you slice it, the film was a dog and everyone involved can pretty much line up to take forty whacks. As filmmakers, we failed to execute a misguided concept and our studio refused us the benefit of any doubt”.

Raimi was similarly hand-washing: “The studio overpowered it and I was a kid, twenty-two years old and didn’t understand what was happening. They bullied me out of the script I wanted; they bullied my actor out of the lead; they bullied my musician off the picture and put on a ‘funny’ score; they got rid of my editor and cut it themselves; they controlled the mix…The whole thing was just awful”. He also suggested Embassy’s demise was divine justice. “It was a black comedy and they put funny music to it to help you laugh… Now it is neither fish nor fowl”.

It's certainly true that Arlon Ober’s music is intrusively instructive. Raimi discovered the budget had been underestimated, which meant Embassy had the justification to crack down and demand things done their way; not only was the shoot stressful (relatively, it was his first blush of a big studio affair), but so was the encumbrance of professional actors, some of them cited as difficult: Lasser was a cokehead doing her own makeup badly; Paul L Smith, who according to Bruce was dubbed by wrestler Dick Afflis, wouldn’t take direction). Raimi was required to undertake reshoots (including the ending). It’s in his being overruled for leading man Victor Ajax that Crimewave suffers the most, though.

Raimi had his Evil Dead star Campbell in mind, but Embassy ordered a screen test, nixed Bruce and had him replaced by a professional a week before shooting. That professional was Reed Birney (who has recently appeared in The Hunt). He’s a plain vanilla Steve Buscemi, unfortunately, looking authentically dweeby but absent any character to go with it, and so you spend much of the movie imagining Campbell making sunshine and roses from the part.

Victor’s an employee of Trend-Odegard Security; he becomes embroiled in a murder plot – the movie frames a flashback as he tells his story, gearing up for a stint in the electric chair – while trying to woo boss’s daughter Nancy (Sheree J Wilson). Dogging their heels are two incompetent (or over-competent) hitmen – Paul L Smith’s Faron Crush and Brion James’ Arthur Coddish – who drive around in a rodent exterminator car with a giant plush rat on the roof.

The hole at the centre means everything else has to take up the slack, and mostly it does. Wilson is on the so-so side, but Smith and Kames are terrific, Looney Tunes meets a couple of characters from Wacky Races (although it’s really The Three Stooges writ large as Raimi’s chief influence, which includes Faron trapping Coddish’ hand in the car’s glove box, and Helene sticking a fork in Crush’s nose, followed a succession of bowling balls bouncing off his head. Smith had larger-than-life form, cast as Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye at the start of the decade, and then leering goliath Glossu Raban in Lynch’s Dune. James, of course, had been in Blade Runner (and 48 HRs.) He relishes the rodent-like Coddish, furnishing him a high-pitched voice and the atypically weaker part of the enterprise.

The prize part of the picture involves Faron’s attempts to dispose of boss’s wife Helene (Lasser). Included in her attempted defence are aforementioned assaults, along with a succession of thrown crockery. And a plant pot. John Hardy, bedecked in shaving foam, attempts to intervene (“I’m going to kick your ass”) and is thrown from the apartment; he survives the fall only to be hit by the exterminator car. The stunning highlight takes place as Faron pursues Helene into the Parade of Protection, a visually stunning chase through a succession of doors Helene opens and closes behind her while Smith charges through them, ignoring any resistance.

James has some choice moments too. These include a romantic confession delivered by an unsuspecting Victor (“I think you’re a very wonderful and very special person”) and hoodwinking Victor during a car rooftop fight; he persuades Victor that he repents – only to throw Ajax off. Helene survives her ordeal – she ends up air freighted to Uruguay, her arrival revealed during the credits sequence. Raimi peppers the picture with signature moments, including the horror movie vibe of Nancy pursued along deserted streets at night. There’s also a very funny scene in which a young squirt announces “I am captain of this elevator and we are stopping at every floor”, only to be propelled from the lift in slow motion by Arthur.

Campbell, meanwhile, was given the consolation role of Renaldo “The Heel”, Raimi expanding the part to allow for some inimitable Bruce shtick. His delivery is an overplayed delight (not entirely dissimilar to his fast-talking journo in the later The Hudsucker Proxy, written about the same time as this). He blows animated smoke ladies and instantly turns Nancy’s head (“What say you and I go out and draw a couple of hours, huh?”; “I haven’t seen you here before. I like that kind of a woman”) – the biggest error in casting Birney is that we’re on the side of whoever is assaulting him. The last we see of Campbell is when Renaldo is kyboshed by a fire escape ladder.

Victor is saved, of course, with Nancy, now a nun, commandeering a car full of sisters (including Frances McDormand), like something out of the Ant Hill Mob. Victor has been remanded in the Hudsucker State Penitentiary, which may ring a bell; the Coens collaborated with Raimi on both projects (this was also called Relentless and The XYZ Murders). We can see familiar noir riffing here (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing), including hit men fetishes (Blood Simple, Fargo). Albeit, Crimewave resists any clear period setting.

Crimewave doesn’t get a whole lot of love. Even those reassessing it in light of the Raimi oeuvre are inclined to side with the director’s verdict. It’s not all it could be, for sure, but I tend towards Kim Newman’s assessment in Nightmare Movies. He called it underrated, recognising that “Crimewave revels in its slapstick strangeness” and comparing it to MAD Magazine and Warner cartoons. Anne Bilson in The Film Yearbook Volume 5 considered it a failure but an interesting one (“Despite some splendidly inventive chase sequences and enjoyably grotesque characterisation, the film is in sore need of a disciplined plot on which to hang its zaniness…”) If only the Chin had maintained top billing, things might have been very different. But then, we might not have got Evil Dead II, which scarcely bears thinking about.


Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989) (SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch , or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins . Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon.  It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy ( Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Bi

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the