With the pedigree behind Crimewave, you would think it would be a must-see movie for film buffs. Sam Raimi, the director of the Evil Dead and Spiderman trilogies, made his studio debut with this film after the success of the original Evil Dead. Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of classics like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men, wrote the script. Even James Cameron was the assistant second director. Yet, this oddball gem gets little attention and didn’t get a DVD release until 2008.
The film follows Victor, played by Reed Birney, an apartment maintenance man with an “Aw Shucks” lovability and naïvety. After getting the night off from his boss, Victor sets himself on the path to finding his one true love, which soon reveals itself in Nancy, played by Sheree Wilson, a tenant of the apartments. Victor sets out to woo Nancy away from the lecherous Renaldo, played by Bruce Campbell in full ham mode. However, Victor and Nancy soon find themselves in a dangerous fight for survival from two psychotic exterminators who’ve botched an assassination.
The movie has an odd mix of slapstick and noir. The timing and cadences of the actors are exaggerated and over the top. It’s overacting in the silliest sense, complete with visual puns and plenty of physical humor. Yet, the trappings of noir are present as well. Most of the movie takes place at night, and the city, Detroit in this case, is presented as dangerous and corrupt. There’s a sense of fatalism that’s present throughout the film, and Raimi uses a lot of shadows and dimly-lit scenes. Nancy as the femme fatale completes the package.
Paul Smith as the exterminator Faron Crush turns in the best acting performance in the film. His character is a sadistic, unstoppable juggernaut, and Smith plays the role with unhinged glee. Crush becomes not just a bad guy, but a destructive force of nature, with a constant look in his eye like he can’t wait to unleash more chaos.
Raimi’s directing in Crimewave retains a lot of the style and technique of Evil Dead. The film has a grainy look, which helps to give the film that retro, noir look. His special and sound effects are very low-fi, and the cuts and camera angles suggest a world askew and dangerous, much like in Evil Dead. His outdoor shots, especially at night, look a lot better than the indoor ones. The grainy feel works with the darkness, whereas indoors it feels more like an old home movie.
Fans of the Coen brothers will find the beginnings and early stages of the kinds of ideas and motifs that would become part of their identity as filmmakers throughout the film. Nearly everyone is presented as being fools in the film. Victor is naive, Renaldo is a heel, Nancy keeps falling for Renaldo’s schtick, the exterminators can’t carry out a simple execution without throwing everything into chaos. The police, and those in positions of power, are also depicted as being corrupt and inept, a theme that the Coen brothers would revisit many times in their career. Even the exterminators’ weapon of choice, a homemade electrocution device, is used in a style similar to the captive bolt pistol in No Country for Old Men.
It is clear that both Raimi and the Coen brothers would go on to do bigger and better things after Crimewave. Raimi perfected the schlocky, camp horror genre with Army of Darkness, and gained mainstream popularity with the Spider-man movies. Joel and Ethan Coen would become two of the great auteur directors of the last few decades, plus winning that Oscar. But Crimewave is worth the watch for anyone who wants to see where these filmmakers came from, or for fans of good, campy fun.