“You broke my shocker!: Sam Raimi and the Coens go on a “Crimewave”

Crimewave Crimewave (Shout! Factory)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. October sees not only the onset of Halloween but the birthday of cult horror maestro-turned-mainstream filmmaker Sam Raimi; all month, we’re web-slinging through his vibrant, diverse filmography. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Under any normal circumstances, a film like Crimewave (1986) would have long since receded into complete obscurity. It had a legendarily rough production that included difficult actors and clashes between the filmmakers and the studio over who was in control. When it finally came out, it was only dribbled out in a handful of cities in order to satisfy the parameters of a deal with HBO. 

To this day, hardly anyone who connected with it has much to say about it as anything other than a cautionary example. Even its director has dismissed it, referring to it as Slimewave: “I wouldn’t use it as filler in a porno film.”

But because that director happened to be Sam Raimi and his writing collaborators were Joel & Ethan Coen, there will always be a degree of curiosity about it. With Raimi and the Coens working together, how bad can it be? Well, pretty bad as it turns out — though perhaps not quite as bad as its reputation might suggest.

Eschewing the gruesome horror of The Evil Dead for something that came stylistically closer to ‘50s crime comic books, black comedy, and a Three Stooges short, Crimewave opens with schnook Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) being sent off to the electric chair. He’s been sentenced for a series of murders he swears he didn’t commit. While hoping for a last-second reprieve, he recounts the story of what led him to his current predicament.

Crimewave
Crimewave

An employee of the Trend-Odegard Security Company, Victor finds himself yearning for true love. He’s convinced he’s found it in neighbor Nancy (Sheree J. Wilson), but she inexplicably seems to only have eyes for a slick heel named Renaldo (Raimi mainstay Bruce Campbell). 

Victor’s about to spend another lonely night at the store right across the street when boss Mr. Trend (Edward R. Pressman) gives him a flowery speech about the grand design of life. He sends Victor out into the night to pursue her, which leads to a series of disasters including him and Nancy getting stuck washing dishes at a nightclub when Renaldo sticks them with a big bill before running off with another dame.

As it turns out, Mr. Trend wasn’t exactly being a romantic when he sent Victor off. Having heard that his partner, Odegard (Hamid Dana), is secretly planning to sell out the company from under him to Renaldo, Trend hires “exterminators” Farron Crush (Paul L. Smith) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James) to bump him off and stop the deal. The two manage to kill him easily enough, but complications soon arise, and Crush and Coddish find themselves needing to take care of a number of the apartment residents such as Trend’s hysterical wife (Louise Lasser).

As the bodies begin to stack up, Victor and Nancy finally return, running afoul of the murderous pair and inspiring an extended chase/fight sequence through the streets of Detroit. Victor may triumph over Crush and Coddish, but with all the circumstantial evidence pointing his way and with Nancy having seemingly vanished into thin air, it appears that all hope may be lost for him. But wait—what’s up with that car full of nuns that we have seen careening through the streets, almost as if trying to get somewhere in the nick of time?

Although Embassy Pictures (then co-owned by Norman Lear) assured Raimi that he’d have complete control over the project, things evidently went sideways early in production. First, executives told him he couldn’t cast Campbell as Victor, so a better-known actor could fill the part. For Raimi to keep Campbell on, he gave him the role of Renaldo and expanded it. 

In his audio commentary for the film’s Blu-Ray (which probably serves as the definitive history), Campbell recounts a litany of disasters that would befall it. There was an inadequate budget, a schedule that led to overruns, and battles between Raimi and studio executives over virtually every aspect of the production such as replacing his original composer and editor. Reshoots and difficulties involving the three name actors also occurred. 

By the time it finally came out, all involved had pretty much washed their hands of it and, if it weren’t for the subsequent notoriety of Raimi and the Coens, it would have almost certainly disappeared from the cinematic landscape.

Even if one went into Crimewave knowing absolutely nothing about its production history, it wouldn’t take them too long to surmise something went horribly wrong. While The Evil Dead and Blood Simple were clearly the efforts of unique filmmakers breathing new life to old genre tropes, Crimewave too often feels like a film that wants to follow its own lead but keeps being wrenched back into something more conventional. As a result, the whole thing comes across as both overblown and undernourished. While Lasser, Smith, and James come close to delivering performances as stylized as the surroundings, Birney and Wilson are as bland as can be.

Crimewave too often feels like a film that wants to follow its own lead but keeps being wrenched back into something more conventional.

And yet, despite all of its overt flaws, Crimewave is not entirely without interest. Like the Coens’ subsequent The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), which Raimi also co-wrote, it tries to present their own fractured take on a type of movie that one might have seen presented in a more straightforward manner in the ‘40s or ‘50s. In this case, it’s the kind of thriller that Alfred Hitchcock might have made about a falsely accused man trying to prove himself innocent. (It also can’t be a coincidence that the jail featured in the wraparound sequence is called Hudsucker Prison.)

There are a number of wild visual sight gags (including numerous Stooges homages) that provide some chuckles. The film also finally kicks into gear during the extended fight/chase sequence at the climax. Eagle-eyed viewers will also get a kick out of a couple of familiar faces that turn up in bit parts. The Coens appear as news reporters at the, Frances McDormand pops up as one of the nuns racing through the night, and there’s even a cameo from Three Stooges veteran Emil Sitka.

As a film, Crimewave is certainly no buried treasure, and Raimi/Coen completionists with drastically reduced expectations are probably the only hardy souls who should attempt to sit through it. As a piece of film history, however, it does have a certain significance that elevates it to at least mild curiosity. Following its disastrous production and reception, Raimi found himself more amenable to the notion of making Evil Dead II (1987), which became a cult sensation and helped to start him on the path to massive mainstream success.

The experience also left the Coens determined to direct their own screenplays, and that decision clearly worked out for them. Perhaps most significantly, the film provides a most significant service—if one’s ever in a situation where they need to connect Frances McDormand with Joe Besser, Crimewave is an absolute godsend.

Crimewave Trailer:

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