(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.