1986 in Film – Crimewave

Release Date: April 25th
Box Office: £5,101

How do you judge a film that is objectively bad, yet had a great legacy? You want to knock the film and point out its flaws but without those flaws you wouldn’t have had what follows. In a way it’s a nice problem but you still have to sit through a bad film to get there.

Crimewave (1986) is a bad film. Very bad. It’s even worse given the talent behind it; Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, the Coen Brothers, basically the teams who made The Evil Dead (1981) and Blood Simple (1985).

Now, as we all know, The Evil Dead was and is a stone cold classic, the Ultimate Experience in Gruelling Terror. Joel Coen was an editor on that film which is how he and his brother met Raimi. From the success of that film, the Coens were inspired to make their own film which became Blood Simple. While maybe it didn’t have as much mainstream fame (or infamy) as Raimi’s film it was certainly a critical hit.

However, due to the time it took The Evil Dead to get traction, a good four years to become a true success, a follow up was a long time coming. Campbell took the odd role in soaps and TV in Detroit and Raimi started work on a script with Joel Coen. Initially he didn’t think much of his brother Ethan, but once Campbell read the Blood Simple script and sold Raimi on it things moved on. The script was about two crazed killers called Relentless.

Now. If you were, today, to announce a new Sam Raimi film with a script co-written by the Coens a good proportion of movie fandom would simply combust. Back then it took the success of The Evil Dead to get studio backing allowing Raimi creative control over what looked to be a dream project, now re-named Crimewave as suggested by one of the studio producers Norman Lear.

The film was and is an abject disaster.

The cracks began to show almost straight away; the lead role of the film, Victor Ajax, was written for Bruce Campbell but the studio insisted he would not star in the film so he was pushed to a supporting role. There were issues with the budget, production difficulties from frozen rivers to the cocaine intake of cast members. When the troubled production was done the film was taken away from Raimi and edited by the studio, they also brought in their own man to score the film.

A quick word on that score. It’s bad. Like, Ghostbusters II (1989) level of bad. Arlon Ober was the man brought in by the studio, the rest of his credits include such well known works as Q (1982) and BrainWaves (1983). Also, weirdly, the Robotech TV series as an arranger and not, it should be noted, as the composer of the iconic theme of the show.

The score only emphasises the scattershot nature of the story: as Vic Ajax is lead to the electric chair, accused of murders he says he did not commit, he tells his story in flashback. This is despite the walk to the electric chair being about twenty feet at best. His story includes two business men at odds with each other, two exterminators brought in as hired killers, a love interest, murders and a dance number.

It’s a mess that zips between genres in the space of a single scene, from noir to parody to horror back to comedy. Whilst The Evil Dead wasn’t afraid to pull in comedy and horror to create something new, this almost goes too far. Fair enough, Raimi has a love of The Three Stooges but this film doesn’t know the line between homage and annoying.

How much of this is down to the studio meddling is the main question. A film that mashes genres together is a tough sell at the best of times and that would be when the creator behind it has a firm hand on the wheel to guide the ship. Here you can almost hear the gnashing of the studio execs teeth as they demanded to view very batch of dailies to control the project.

Once the film was completed, as Bruce Campbell put it, it wasn’t released it escaped. It snuck out in some countries the previous year before it received a narrow US release (Kansas and Alaska) in 1986 whereupon it flopped.

Raimi would describe the production of the film as “a horrible, horrible scene” and Campbell insisted he would never work with big budget producers ever again. The Coens would go on to direct their screenplays to maintain some measure of control. It was the kind of disaster that takes down careers for good.

It was a good thing, then, that Raimi had a standing offer to go make Evil Dead II (1987).

In some ways, that film takes part of what Crimewave wanted to do and does it right: bending genres till they break; the cartoonish violence; Three Stooges references. Somehow, Raimi was able to go from the wreckage of his first studio film and go on to make one of the most confidently put together films of the decade.

All of this means that Crimewave was quickly forgotten. Was there any other fate for this film? Being sandwiched between two five star films in the shape of the first two Evil Dead films would be tough for any film to stand up to. For a mess like Crimewave it’s even worse.

It does have some highlights; the car chase at the end is well put together even if it seems like its from another film. Bruce Campbell’s cameo makes a mockery of the studio’s decision not to cast him as the lead. The man who replaced him, Reed Birney, tries his best but has neither the charisma or the physical ability to pull the role off. He would go off into TV until popping up recently in The Blacklist and the Netflix version of House of Cards.

Thats about it for the plus points. It’s the definition of a curio, of a cult film, one for the fans only. Even then its a tough watch despite knowing the quality that would follow.

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