THE EVIL DEAD was a hit. It took them a while, but they found a distributor, Irvin Shapiro. He’d been a founder of the Cannes Film Festival, and arranged for it to screen out of competition, where Stephen King saw it and loved it. Him raving about it in USA Today brought it outsized attention for such a small movie. It was well reviewed and became a sleeper hit, making 8 times its budget at the domestic box office (and then we all saw it on video).
And you know how these days you can make a low budget horror debut and a studio will hire you to direct SHAZAM! or some shit? That’s a little bit like what Raimi tried to do after THE EVIL DEAD. Not a for-hire thing, but a bigger movie more in the comedic vein of his amateur Super-8 films. According to Bruce Campbell’s book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, THE EVIL DEAD editor Edna Ruth Paul had told Raimi that her assistant Joel Coen and his brother Ethan wrote great scripts. “Ethan was just a statistical accountant at Macy’s at the time,” Raimi is quoted as saying in the book, “and I thought it’s probably going to be awful, but I’ll read it because I like Joel. And I read it and I thought, ‘This is really a great script. These guys know how to write scripts.’ I needed help, because ours was no good and they came in and helped me with it.”
Later there was an uncredited pass by Sheldon Lettich, who in a few years would become forever associated with Jean-Claude Van Damme by writing BLOODSPORT and then directing LIONHEART. (Lettich would also co-write a too-ambitious EVIL DEAD 2 draft similar to what became ARMY OF DARKNESS.)
Set in Raimi and Campbell’s home town of Detroit, CRIMEWAVE (1985) is a weird and funny movie, teeming with Raimi and Coen personality, from the precisely worded dialogue full of humorously archaic phrasing, to the over-the-top set pieces, to the straight up Three Stooges cartooniness. A favorite example of the latter: during a struggle, a shelf gets knocked down and a series of bowling balls (or cannonballs?) roll onto a villain’s head one after the other – don’t keep those on a shelf, people! That’s dangerous!
But Embassy Pictures fucked with Raimi from the beginning, causing numerous obvious compromises, so he and the Coens have long since disowned it.
First and worst compromise: they wouldn’t let Bruce Campbell be the star. He’s funny as Renaldo, the “heel” and lady’s man who’s the hero’s romantic rival. But the lead was given to Reed Birney (House of Cards, THE HUNT), who comes off like a poor man’s Anthony Edwards circa REVENGE-OF-THE-NERDS. He plays hapless dork Vic Ajax, who openly reads the book How To Talk To Women and then, when he gets the chance to, only talks to them about himself. It’s easy to imagine this cluelessness working with Campbell’s arrogant buffoon shtick, but Birney’s portrayal seems a little too accurate to that type of person to be charming. I kind of want to see him suffer. But he pulls some of it off.
The film opens in Hudsucker State Penitentiary (yep), where convicted murderer Vic’s first lines are “But I’m innocent! Innocent I tell ya!” and “Say, you look like a couple of reasonable fellas…” to the guards escorting him to the electric chair. Then he narrates to them the screwball noir tale of how he got there.
He’s just a dumb sucker working for Trend-Odegard Security Systems when Mr. Trend (Edward R. Pressman, producer of THE CROW) finds out Mr. Odegard (Hamid Dana) is scheming to sell their company to Renaldo, who’s introduced with his feet up on Odegard’s desk, spraying himself some Binaca mid-cigarette, holding designs for turning their building into “Renaldo’s Girlie Revue.” Trend decides to put a hit out on his treacherous partner, which he does by calling Center City Exterminators (“WE KILL ALL SIZES” is their slogan).
WEIRD COEN-VERSE TRIVIA: In BLOOD SIMPLE, Meurice receives an answering machine message from Helene Trend, voiced by an uncredited Holly Hunter. Here Mr. Trend’s wife is named Helene (Louise Lasser, BLOOD RAGE). She, some of her neighbors, and Vic see too much and become targets of the exterminators too.
Vic is occupied with trying to impress Nancy (Sheree J. Wilson, Walker, Texas Ranger), a random woman he helped up when she fell down in the street and now he’s convinced he’s in love with her. She turns out to be dating Renaldo, but Vic moves in when Renaldo is being a jerk at a fancy restaurant with a live band. For some reason Vic is there wearing a tuxedo. He does a terrible job of trying to prove he’s a nice guy, boring the shit out of Nancy with a self-absorbed monologue where he uses the phrases “the grand design,” “foyer” and “anteroom,” all picked up from an earlier conversation with Mr. Trend (that’s one of my favorite Coen Brothers trademarks – characters using phrases that we know they copied from someone else).
There’s a corny-as-hell joke I love where they’re $36 short for the bill, and suddenly there’s an announcement for a dance contest with a $36 prize. So they dance and then it whip pans to them washing dishes, Vic still smiling and dancing to the big band music.
The exterminators, Faron Crush and Arthur Coddish, are played by a dubbed Paul L. Smith (also in THE PROTECTOR and RED SONJA that year) and weaselly, high-pitched Brion James (after BLADE RUNNER, before STEEL DAWN). They drive a truck with a giant rat sculpture on the roof and use a handheld electrocution machine with a dial to switch from ‘RATS’ to ‘MEN.’ The kind of guys who try to dump a body in a Salvation Army donation bin. To their eyewitness, Helene, one says, “Lady, you ain’t seen nothin.”
And then… “YET!”
They’re cartoons, but they’re so psychotic, and the suspense sequences are so well planned and directed, that I think they’re pretty scary. I’ve read that although BLOOD SIMPLE first played a year before this did, it was written second. The scene where Helene stabs a fork under her door while watching the other side on a security feed seems like a cousin of Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh’s blind fight through a window. Also BLOOD SIMPLEesque: Nancy talking to Arthur around a corner, thinking he’s Vic, and then Vic trying to talk to her through the door not realizing he’s talking to Arthur.
But things go more RAISING ARIZONA in the incredible sequence where Faron pulls Helene and the entire living room toward him by tugging on the carpet.
And there’s an even better one! The security company has a display called “The Parade of Protection, The safest hallway in the world!,” a multi-colored series of doors and walls demonstrating all the types of locks and alarms available. She runs through, shutting each door behind her, and he chases after her, ramming straight through the doors like Juggernaut, until the walls start falling like dominoes.
So often comedies are just about the jokes, and can’t be bothered with style. A sequence this elaborate and visually appealing (let alone based on such a perfectly absurd premise) is a rare and beautiful thing. And even when CRIMEWAVE doesn’t reach this far, its whole world is potently cinematic. It’s like a Hitchcock movie with its witnessing of crimes from windows, old timey hats for both men and women, rooms dimly lit by hanging lights, and lovingly designed compositions. With cinematographer Robert Primes (STUNT ROCK, THE HARD WAY, BAADASSSSS!), Raimi can’t stop coming up with amazing angles. Check out this one where Helene looks out the window as the exterminators arrive accompanied by a lightning flash.
So much of it has to show things going on inside and outside a window, or across the street – setups you don’t have to bother with when you just have the cabin and the woods to deal with. Raimi seems eager to play with the tools afforded to him by a real studio budget ($2.5 million). There’s a shot that pans across a city block as extras run by, a guy comes out of a door and gets hit by a falling awning, pigeons fly by and then toward the camera, animated lightning hits a fire hydrant and a guy gets hit by a car and flips over the hood.
There is a little bit that did remind me of Raimi’s first movie – sort of an EVIL DEAD cam zooming down the street as a storm blows papers around. Speaking of papers and THE EVIL DEAD, check out this newspaper article I spotted in freeze frame! Never realized this took place in the same universe. One weird thing is that the “Time-space disturbance” part sounds like part II. I’ve been confused on the timeline of when they wrote that, and this implies they were at least thinking about their medieval sequel idea while making CRIMEWAVE, even though some claim they didn’t plan to do a sequel until this was a flop.
CRIMEWAVE is so beautiful in so many ways, I wish the hero wasn’t such a schmuck. He comes across like that familiar ‘80s comedy archetype of the completely unlikable doofus who we’re supposed to feel for because he claims to be a nice guy and an old fashioned romantic. He says, “Nancy, today, when I saw you fall, all I wanted to do is take care of you,” like that’s some kind of deep connection. There is no connection – he says “Some night, huh?” after the date, unaware that she was transparently miserable the entire time. When she tells him as much he says, “You’re not being rational.” By the end of the movie she, completely unearned, starts to love him. If he was a more outrageous character like Chris Elliot in CABIN BOY (or like Campbell might’ve played it) it might’ve felt like a funny parody, but as is it’s a little awkward.
On the other hand, it gets a laugh out of me when a random dude allows Vic to commandeer his vehicle on account of The Power of Love.
“What’s the trouble, son?” he says.
“Some maniacs are after my girl, and I wonder if you’d let me take your—“
The man holds up his hand to silence him. “Ya love her, son?”
“Yes sir, I reckon I do.”
Stunt coordinator Rick Barker did second unit on NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. I wonder if that’s the golf course unit? The climax of CRIMEWAVE is a proto-FAST AND FURIOUS freeway chase combining crazy car stunts with lots of not-so-convincing rear projection to have the characters jumping from vehicle to vehicle, punching through windshields, hanging from bumpers, fighting on roofs and hoods, dangling over the side of a bridge. But instead of Vin Diesel we have a dork who almost loses by putting his bat down when the villain promises to be good. “All right, just this once,” he says. “Put ‘er there, pal!”
It was written under the title RELENTLESS, but their beloved producer Irvin Shapiro convinced them to change it to THE XYZ MURDERS. And one time I was going through old newspapers and learned that it played the Seattle International Film Festival under the title BROKEN HEARTS AND NOSES. Campbell’s book mentions it playing in Seattle, saying it was the only time it ever went over well with a crowd, because the guy who introduced it warned that it was “silly.”
Raimi and the Coens don’t talk about the movie much. In 2014 Raimi told the Nerdist podcast:
“We made a terrible movie that was butchered by the studios called Crimewave. They wouldn’t let me star Bruce Campbell a couple weeks before it started to shoot. They changed the music and they re-edited the whole thing. It was really unpleasant … right after we were finished shooting, in the midst of editing it, they took the picture away from me. They wouldn’t let me edit the picture. They hired their own editor. It’s too unpleasant to talk about.”
In The Evil Dead Companion he says, “I’m not even saying the picture I gave them was good, but it had four times as many great moments. Now there’s maybe one great moment and two good moments, but I had five great moments. The movie was never really good, but it would have been a hell of a lot better if Embassy had left it alone.”
I don’t know. I think I could count more great moments than that.
In the same book producer Rob Tapert theorizes “It doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be. It wants to be entertainment, but is it an action movie? Is it a romantic comedy? It doesn’t really fit into any genre, so you don’t know how to respond.”
I hate when people say stuff like that. It wants to be a broad comedy version of a noir with some horrific parts and some action sequences. Or if not it ended up as one. Sometimes the movies that don’t adhere to the expectations of the genre are the most interesting ones. Some of those even have your name in the credits, Tapert!
Campbell in his book says that “CRIMEWAVE was a lesson about abject failure – no matter how you slice it, the film was a dog,” but he doesn’t find it too unpleasant to talk about, so he recorded a very informative and entertaining commentary track that’s on the Shout Factory Blu-Ray and DVD. He was a very hands-on producer so he has plenty to say about everything beyond just playing Renaldo, and he has a very good attitude about the casting: he figures if the studio had let him star it still would have failed and might have taken his acting career down with it.
Equally important: their need for a comeback and creative control after CRIMEWAVE helped push them into Dino De Laurentiis’ office wanting to do EVIL DEAD 2, which ultimately made the world a better place. Thank you for your service, CRIMEWAVE.