Crimewave’s Slapstick Noir

crimewavepicOk this was pretty horrible. I think Sam Raimi’s Crimewave created a whole new film genre that I’d call Slapstick Noir and killed that ill-thought genre stone-cold dead. What a terribly bonkers movie.

And yet… isn’t Crimewave everything that Spielberg’s 1941 was, too, except that Spielberg’s farce was a big-budget WWII comedy and Raimi’s a low-budget 1980s-set crime comedy? I really disliked 1941 though I know it has its fans, but really, all the daft excess and slapstick humour in 1941 is so similar to that of Crimewave they could be filmic cousins (they even have dance-numbers). 1941 is clearly the better movie, because at least it maintains an even tone and kind of works as a comedy, whereas Crimewave is very uneven, is all over the place tonally and mostly falls flat as comedy (there’s nothing worse than a comedy-film where the comedy itself crashes with a repeated horrible thud). Crimewave is awkward and (mostly) unfunny with the oddest performances (I’ll never watch Brion James in Blade Runner in quite the same way ever again).

The best thing regards Crimewave is that its such a 1980s movie: it has that cinematography and cast and style and fashion that marks it of that decade and that’s something I really warm to anyway. The film doesn’t work at all, really, but it just oozes that 1980s feel, so much so that while I watched it on Indicator’s new Blu-ray edition, I could imagine the tape reels rattling when holding a VHS cassette, putting it in the player and hearing the gear mechanism pulling the tape into the player. The film even has the old Embassy Pictures logo at the start. It almost feels wrong, somehow, owning and watching this film on something as fancy as a Blu-ray disc.

So anyway, Crimewave: I should probably note what it is about (if its about anything at all, but here goes). The films opens on Death Row with inmate Vic Ajax (Reed Birney, an actor who here alarmingly resembles a young Les Dennis (no, really)) about to be executed for murder. While Vic protests his innocence, we see several Nuns tightly wedged into a car racing through deserted streets, a clearly unusual image and some indication of the tonally off-kilter film to follow. As Vic is escorted to the electric chair he whines about his ill-fortune and tells his story, the film going into flashback to tell the story proper. Vic’s boss, Ernest Trend (film producer Edward R. Pressman), has stumbled upon a scheme of his business partner to sell their store to a sleazy heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell), who intends to turn it into a strip-joint/bar, and leave Trend with nothing. Trend hires an Exterminator business out of the phonebook (!) to exterminate both his partner and Renaldo: these Exterminators are crazy maniacs Faron Crush (Paul L. Smith, who I instantly recognised as the Beast Rabban from Lynch’s Dune) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James) whose murderous pitfalls prove the central drive of the film when their murder-spree gets out of hand. Vic gets caught up in the nightmare whilst trying to date the girl of his dreams, the beautiful albeit disinterested Nancy (Sheree J.Wilson), with the help of a pocketbook how-to guide.  As the film progresses, the body count ramps up and Vic ends up blamed for all of it. If only the Nuns can save him…

The thing is, written up like that its the kind of thing that inevitably pulls in the curious. Its not a bad story- wildly implausible of course but that’s partly the point. The performances though are so wild and all over the place, and the humour falls flat so often with such heavy thuds, that it really is something of a disaster. It only dawned on me mid-way through the film (I must have been slow on the uptake last night, but it had been a long day) that the film is really a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Smith and James seem to ‘get it’ and are the most successful elements (albeit possibly most off-putting, personal mileage may vary) in the film, crazy cartoonish caricatures chewing up the scenery with wild abandon, accentuated by dubbed dialogue and sound effects. Something like that Joe Dante section in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Once the viewer grows accustomed to what’s going on and what the film is intending to be to tell its tale, then one can accept and possibly even enjoy the film on its own terms. Certainly I could see a lot of the wild humour of the Evil Dead films: unfortunately while the Evil Dead flicks had their horror and gore to form their bedrock and perspective, Crimewave doesn’t, unable to establish what it is- indeed its clear the filmmakers themselves possibly didn’t have a clue themselves.   

That said, in the filmmakers defence, the production of the film was an utter mess and Sam Raimi himself, and indeed many of those involved, disowned the movie entirely. Their first major studio click, the filmmakers were completely at odds with the Embassy Pictures executives, the indie-film freedoms of The Evil Dead leaving them unprepared for everything entailed with a studio picture with its the union system. Their choice of lead was refused (Bruce Campbell intended to play Vic but relegated to minor player Renaldo), the filming went out of control with some of the cast purportedly worse for wear due to drug problems, and the studio took over the picture in post, vainly trying to save the film in the editing room. 

crimewave indicatorIndicator’s Blu-ray is typically high quality- it embarrasses better films with its wealth of supplements which include two audio commentaries and various interview featurettes, most of which I’ve barely skimmed through. I’ve written before that some bad films can be more interesting than good ones, and while that’s not entirely true here, I am certainly curious about listening to the commentary tracks (what I have heard of them from a brief sample seems very interesting). Its definitely difficult to recommend a film like this- I am sure it has its fans but I’d caution anyone coming to this film blind as I did. Still, one can’t have enough Bruce Campbell films in their collection, can they? Besides, Brion James alone is worth the price of this disc, possibly the strangest and most horrifyingly nuts performance I’ll see all year… hopefully (I don’t think I could stand another one).

 

3 thoughts on “Crimewave’s Slapstick Noir

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    I have owned this on VHS (well, taped off the TV), DVD and Blu-ray but I think I only ever watched the VHS. That’s pretty telling.

    It was pretty indigestible back in the late 80s, when my taste for all things Raimi and Coen was at a peak. But now it’s very very low on my list of movies to return to. Your write up has only reinforced that.

    Fun fact: in 1993 I won a copy of Army Of Darkness on VHS in a Forbidden Planet competition. When I went in to collect it they said I was the only person who’d got the answer right, apparently the only person in London who knew that Crimewave was originally titled ‘The XYZ Murders’.

    1. Wow, those were the days back when competitions required genuine knowledge over a simple Google search.

      I’ll re-watch Crimewave just to listen to the commentary tracks, I hope they will be a ball- sometimes commentaries are more fun (not necessarily honest, but fun) if only because something more scathing or self-deprecating is much more refreshing than the usual ” this was great/he was great/this is so cool” stuff. That’s why the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell tracks are just endlessly good to return to, and why Blade Runner really needed a cast and crew track to rip it one. I’d have loved to hear Sean Young bitching about everybody, M Emmett Walsh bitching about Ridley and Edward James Olmos and Rutger reminiscing about career highpoints. That would have been priceless.

  2. Pingback: The 2021 List: March – the ghost of 82

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