Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The XYZ's of a Criminally Overlooked Misfire :: Sam Raimi's Crimewave (1985)

"I'm the Captain of this elevator.

And we're stopping on every floor!"


Aside from being one of the most unrepentantly ferocious horror films ever made, and inspiring the greatest psycho-billy song ever recorded, The Evil Dead (1981) should also be noted for bringing Sam Raimi and Joel and Ethan Coen into the same cinematic orbit.

As the legend goes, after a grueling shoot, with their opus at long last in the can, the Renaissance Film trio -- director Raimi, producer Rob Tapert and star Bruce Campbell -- took their raw footage to New York, where editor Edna Ruth Paul and her assistant, Joel Coen, awaited to hack and splice it all together.

At the time, brother Ethan was an accountant for Macys, but as the film began to take shape, Raimi and the brothers Coen hit it off after Paul insisted he take a look at one of their scripts, which would eventually be filmed as Blood Simple (1984), where the Coens stopped being known as Joel and Ethan and officially became the Coen Brothers.

Liking what he read, and finding that they had similar sensibilities, Raimi then dusted off an old script of his own about a pair of bumbling killers called Relentless; and together, Raimi and the Coens fleshed it out considerably, with a hope that it would be a possible follow up once The Evil Dead was completed and released.

Sam Raimi

Ethan and Joel Coen

Now, it was while touring the finished film in Europe that Raimi and Tapert found a champion in producer Edward Pressmen -- Badlands (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Conan the Barbarian (1982), who liked the cut of their gib so much he helped them shepherd that follow up -- now under the title of The XYZ Murders -- into production by securing them financing through AVCO Embassy.

Turns out, however, that that would be the last bit of luck the soon-to-be-troubled production would encounter.

“At the time we had no idea how good of an experience Evil Dead was,” said Campbell (If Chins Could Kill, 2001). “Sure, we burned off four years of our lives and didn’t pocket a cent, but we had total creative control. Jumping into the big time meant dealing with the excruciatingly specific and alternately vague demands of a studio -- unlike Michigan dentists, Hollywood executives took an interest in EVERYTHING.”

It began with the casting, where the AVCO Embassy suits demanded that Campbell be replaced by a more bankable star. (Hell. I know when I think of a bankable star, I think of Reed Birney. Sheesh.)

Couple that with a grossly underestimated budget (-- as the novice filmmakers did not take into account union fees and other incidentals with their original proposal), resulting in a shoot that ran both over time and over budget, leaving neither camp very happy with each other; and conditions did not improve when a rough-cut was finally screened.

Upset with the overblown antics and nonsensical story-line, the studio basically seized the film and shooed Raimi and company out the door. After wrenching it away, AVCO Embassy then re-cut the film and redid the score, making the thing even more convoluted and nonsensical, slapped it with a new and -- staying with the theme -- nonsensical title, and then, by now having lost all faith in the project, quietly released Crimewave (1985), which just as quietly disappeared soon after.

Ever since the film has been treated like a red-headed step-child by its creators, loathed by their fans over the way they were treated by the studio hacks, and basically unheard of by everyone else. To that end, Crimewave has few defenders, but, despite all of its problems and flaws, and there are many, I’m here to tell you that I am an unabashed fan. 

Also, it’s nowhere near as bad as you’ve heard and, I think, the film is rather brilliant if you can look at it with an un-jaded eye. And the central plot isn’t all that convoluted to my eye, but tends to get lost in the thunder of the utter chaos surrounding it.

Basically, a security expert hires a couple of hitmen -- one a brutish thug (Smith), the other a weasel personified with a thing for electricity (James) -- to bump off his business partner. Things go staggeringly awry from there and a farcical comedy of errors follows as more and more bodies start piling up. See, the assassins have to keep catching and bumping off witness after witness; the toughest catch being the victim’s wife (Lasser).

Meanwhile, a hapless dope (Birney) becomes an unwitting dupe as he tries to protect his dame (Wilson) from becoming the next victim. Bedlam and an astounding amount of property damage ensue, which all culminates in one helluva car chase (-- with an extended cameo by The Classic).

Often described by the few who have seen it as a feature length tribute to the The Three Stooges, I think Raimi and the Coens had a loftier model in mind and were inspired, instead, by the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges -- Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), with the usual trademark “Shemping” thrown in to fill in the gaps.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton running through a lot of these slapstick set-ups and gob-smacking gags -- especially that elevator gag. (Anyone else notice how much Butch’s dad looks like Joe E. Brown?) This notion was then cross-pollinated with the Looney Tunes, allowing these characters to inflict and sustain an inordinate amount of hit-damage, exemplified by the extended game of cat and mouse between Faron and Mrs. Trend:

The scene where Faron sinks his fingers into the carpet and pulls the hysterical woman and the whole room, en masse, toward him is right out of the Tex Avery / Chuck Jones playbook. 

But that’s just a teaser to the truly inspired scene as the chase continues through a security door display, with Faron plowing through each door just as fast as his victim can close them.

Honestly, I think your reaction to that kind of humor will gauge whether you’d like this film or not. Would I have loved to see Campbell in the lead? Absolutely (-- and he’s great as the heel, Renaldo). 

To be fair, Reed Birney isn’t that bad as our hero, Vic Ajax, but the part was geared for and would have been better served by the guy he replaced.

And I’m embarrassed to admit but it wasn’t until I screened it again for this write-up that I realized Vic’s love-interest, Nancy, was played by Sheree Wilson, destined to play Chuck Norris’ main squeeze in Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001).

Meanwhile, known for being one of the former Mrs. Woody Allens and the star of the short-lived but fondly remembered Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (19876-1977), Louise Lasser holds her own in a role that required her to drop her neurotic shtick to scream and run around like a chicken with its head chopped off. And as our cartoonish killers, Paul Smith and Brion James are damned near pitch-perfect.

Thus, with all that (burgeoning) clout behind the camera and a game cast, one can’t help but wonder what went so wrong to cause that big of a knee-jerk reaction from the studio? 

As is, one of Crimewave’s biggest problems is that if you take a step back you can easily see that its parts are better than the whole. Kinda like how certain cars are more valuable if they’re chopped up and sold for parts.

I would love to see a DVD release of it someday; preferably a director’s cut to see if maybe all those parts gelled better. But I don’t think that will ever happen, from what I’ve read, as all involved want nothing to do with it.

And I guess one good thing did come out of Crimewave. After the film landed with thunderous thud, Raimi and his collective head of knuckle needed a fast rebound or their viability might have been shot forever. And that rebound turned out to be a sequel all involved thought they’d never (have to) do. 

Take that, haters.

This here post is part of The Raimifest Blogathon, which originated over at the S-Mart Smart Things that Don't Suck. Thanks to Bryce for throwing out such a wide net for contributions, and now all you Primitive Screw-Heads, Darkmen, and slightly Radio-Active Do-Gooders click on over and check out the other well worth your while entries.

Crimewave (1985) Renaissance Pictures-AVCO Embassy / D: Sam Raimi / W: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Sam Raimi / C: Robert Primes / E: Michael Kelly, Kathie Weaver / M: Arlon Ober / P: Edward R. Pressman, Irvin Shapiro, Rob Tapert / S: Reed Birney, Sheree J. Wilson, Louise Lasser, Brion James, Paul L. Smith, Bruce Campbell


Anonymous said...

I really need to see this again. My brother and I used to catch bits and pieces of it on cable and we were always amazed by it's oddball nature.

Bryce Wilson said...

Nicely done WB. If that movie worked as well as a whole as it did in part It'd be one of Raimi's all time classics. I appreciate you sticking up for it!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...