After three Spider-Man pictures and the recent Oz: The Great and Powerful, it’s easy to think of Sam Raimi as a go-to orchestrator of mainstream blockbusters. But his journey from scrappy low-budget horror director to the guy who finally cracked Spider-Man took a solid two decades. During that time, Raimi’s filmography includes a period of bringing his pulp-slapstick sensibility to broader audiences (Evil Dead 2; Darkman; Army of Darkness) and another of expanding his chops with diverse studio jobs (For Love of the Game; The Gift; A Simple Plan).
It also includes Crimewave, Raimi’s second and least-seen film. According to an interview with producer and costar Bruce Campbell on the new Shout! Factory Blu-ray, it was only ever theatrically released in Kansas and Alaska, in order to satisfy a contract with HBO, which presumably aired it at some point but did not turn it, through repeated exposure, into a beloved cult classic.
The movie continues to trod that path toward post-release embrace, albeit slowly and unevenly. It certainly has the pedigree for an underappreciated cult item: it’s one of several points of intersection between Raimi’s team and the Coen Brothers, who receive a co-writing credit on the screenplay. Another of their collaborations almost a decade later, The Hudsucker Proxy, overcame bad press and dismal box office to acquire a fair number of ardent admirers. Crimewave, like Hudsucker (whose name turns up in the earlier film, affixed to a state penitentiary) is a winking, cartoony pastiche of old-timey pictures from the ‘30s and ‘40s. But if Hudsucker is a gloss on the Coens’ beloved screwball, Crimewave, while dealing with Coen-y tropes (a hapless hero; black-comic murder), is unmistakably Raimi’s in its Looney Tunes sensibility.
The eternally vexed Daffy Duck/Wile E. Coyote figure of the film is Victor (Reed Birney), a security technician who moons over Nancy (Sheree J. Wilson), who prefers to date Renaldo (Bruce Campbell), a “heel” who intends to buy the company where Victor works. To avoid the sale, one of the company’s partners hires a pair of wacked-out exterminators (Brion James and Paul Smith) to kill the other partner. But Victor and Nancy keep turning up in the wrong places at the wrong times; eventually, the exterminators come after them with the zeal (and weirdly distorted/redubbed voices) of homicidal cartoon characters.
With its grotesque caricatures, genre-kidding plot turns, and frequent violations of physics, Crimewave is the kind of goof that repulses mainstream audiences and delights movie-crazy geeks. Watching it on Blu-ray, I was delighted, too—but only intermittently. The movie begins with a framing device (added later, Campbell points out in the disc’s commentary) that creates great urgency, only to have the story go slack as it explores a circuitous plot in flashback, full of silly asides and non sequiturs. At only eighty-three minutes, the movie manages to be both manic and glacially paced, lunging from parody to amateurish goon show.
These lunges include moments of crazed inspiration like the sequence where Faron (Paul Smith), one of the exterminators, smashes through a series of multicolored stage doors as he pursues his target; weirdly funny, unexplained gags, like the way Victor inexplicably lapses into the lyrics of the Association’s minor hit “Cherish” when speaking to Nancy; and scenes that meld the two, like an impromptu dance sequence tagged with a terrific cutaway gag. But there’s also plenty of time alotted for the actors (particularly James and Smith) to scream and growl and make dopey faces; at times, Raimi strains for his beloved wackiness.
Even with retrospective information provided on the Blu-ray, it’s tricky to figure out exactly where Crimewave went wrong, but the movie’s failure seems cooperative: fun but half-baked ideas from the filmmakers that executives couldn’t improve by tampering. Raimi and company struggled, post-Evil Dead, to adjust to somewhat less independent ways of working. Early on, it was assumed that Campbell would play Victor, but executives wanted to give bigger names a crack at the part—which doesn’t really explain why the movie settled on Reed Birney, a mostly-TV actor who speaks here in a nasal Weird Al-ish voice and is, all things considered, even less conventional a leading man than Campbell. But Campbell’s loss is also Campbell’s gain; he’s very funny as the heel.
Despite his downgraded screentime, Campbell has apparently been elected official Crimewave spokesperson; he appears in the aforementioned interview, explaining just what the hell this movie is and how it was made, and on a commentary track which supplements that basic outline with more detailed production anecdotes, told with the tossed-off skill of a practiced raconteur. At no time is he joined by director Raimi or their producing partner Robert Tapert (to say nothing of the Coens).
Campbell characterizes their comedy as an attempt at a “wacky, fun adventure that went horribly wrong.” From Evil Dead, he explains, Raimi’s team learned how to succeed, and from Crimwave they learned how to fail – and “from failing we learned a tremendous amount.” You can also learn plenty about Raimi from watching Crimewave and its supplements: what he finds funny, the lengths he’ll go to get a complex shot, and his level of willingness to put his actors through the cartoon wringer (high). But as enjoyable as Raimi completists should find Crimewave, these lessons are also available via other, better films.