Every so often, a young director will come along and go through what is commonly referred to as his or her sophomore slump after wowing critics and or audiences alike with a splashy debut of some kind. And after making a name for himself (along with the man who would be Ash, Bruce Campbell) with the 1981 horror classic 'Evil Dead,' Raimi (and Campbell) did just that, by teaming up with the Coen Brothers in the 1986 slapstick comedy/noir mash-up, 'Crimewave.'
And so, in collaborating with the Coen Brothers, who were working on their first film, the neo-noir thriller 'Blood Simple,' Raimi was – to paraphrase Campbell – looking to do a film that would afford him the opportunity to show off a little more of his comedic sensibilities and not require a fire hose connected to a vat of fake blood. In that regard, 'Crimewave' was born, and Raimi would see his first misstep into the world of the Hollywood studio system.
Although 'Crimewave' was a financial disaster (it opened on a mere seven screens during its opening weekend), mostly maligned by critics, and the experience Raimi and Campbell had making the film became something of litmus test for the viability of future productions, it's hard not to look back and appreciate it for its off-the-wall silliness, limitless energy, and some truly impressive cinematic moments from a young and very talented filmmaker.
Taking its cue from Raimi and the Coens' apparent love of the irreverent, 'Crimewave' tells the tale of a businessman who hires two contract killers (played by Brion James of 'Blade Runner' and 'The Fifth Element,' and Paul L. Smith of 'Midnight Express') who take the term "cartoonish" to vertigo-inducing heights, in order to murder his duplicitous partner. Naturally, things go horribly wrong and what follows is a single madcap evening in which a socially awkward security guard named Vic Ajax (Reed Birney) gets mixed-up in a series of botched murders and subsequent attacks on everyone who inadvertently laid eyes on the homicidal pair.
The film begins with Ajax awaiting a seat in the electric chair after having been framed for the murders committed by the "exterminators," while a car full of nuns races to the prison to try and put a stop to the proceedings. While this kind of storytelling certainly has its detractors, here it ostensibly works to quickly set the ground rules for the film and the frame of mind in which the audience should be viewing it. Essentially, if you've ever seen a 'Looney Tunes wherein any of the various characters are in prison, or awaiting their execution, 'Crimewave' unfolds in a similar fashion – complete with cartoony (and bloodless) violence, strange character voices and brightly colored set pieces that utilize repetition and far-fetched flights of fancy to great effect.
While watching 'Crimewave,' one gets the sense that this is an unfiltered look into the way Raimi's mind works. Here, the director seems delightfully unfettered by any notion of unnecessary logic, conventionality or audience expectation. Instead, he's operation on pure instinct, delightfully spewing out every trick he'd picked up so far and indulging in every whim he'd previously been forced to keep at bay. Much of this is evident in the anachronisms seen throughout the film. While things like the style of dress, cityscape and the dwellings within said city all seem to be a mishmash of several eras from 1960 and before, the film mixes in many other elements from later decades (most notably: Raimi's 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88, which had previously made an appearance in 'Evil Dead' and would later go on to show up in many of Raimi's films in one way or another).
On one hand, viewing this picture gives one the sense that its failure was almost inevitable – it's very strange, unwieldy and appeals to a specific kind sense of humor. But it's also incredibly ambitious, especially for a director's second feature length film and his first within the sometimes-restrictive confines of the Hollywood movie system. Although 'Crimewave' tends to meld several seemingly incongruous elements together (e.g., noir, comedy, dance numbers and huge action sequences) the film manages to keep the same cheeky tone throughout, and that fact alone makes it pretty entertaining.
'Crimewave' lacks the enduring popularity of its predecessor, but part of that may be due to it having nearly dropped off the face of the Earth for three decades (even Raimi has distanced himself from it). It's certainly not an overlooked masterpiece in Raimi's catalog, but it is a fun example of a young filmmaker being brave enough to take some serious risks with a film that could easily have been his last.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Crimewave' comes from Shout Factory as a two disc Blu-ray/DVD combo the comes in the standard 2-disc Blu-ray keepcase. There are no previews, so the disc will head directly to the top menu where the viewer can select from a host of special features, including a commentary with Bruce Campbell.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec on 'Crimewave' does exactly what is expected of a quality transfer for a low budget film from the early-'80s. The image is very clean with a nice amount of detail running throughout, but it's also quite clear the film's age and the conditions most of the filming occurred in – which are all pluses in terms of the transfer.
First off, there's very little noise or other offensive artifacts messing with the picture; in fact, it's borderline pristine. However, there's not a lot of evidence of too much digital tinkering either, which can often be as bothersome as scratches and dust. Although there is a persistent level of grain present throughout the film, it only serves to remind the viewer of when the film was made and doesn't actually detract from what is otherwise a bright and well-preserved image.
Contrast levels are quite good throughout the film, though there are some segments where black levels seem to swallow up some of the fine detail and the image suffers somewhat. Thankfully, these instances are rare and actually appear to have occurred during filming, so they may actually be deliberate and not a fault of the film's transfer to Blu-ray. Though they are intrusive occasionally, black levels are mostly deep and inky, and there is no evidence of crush or banding anywhere on the film.
Fine detail is quite good but, as you can imagine, there are some instances where the image goes a little soft, which is likely due to the film's age. Overall, though, the transfer does a great job of presenting the film in high definition and manages to give this (intentionally?) forgotten flick some new life.
'Crimewave' was filmed in 1983, but still, Shout Factory has seen fit to slap on a very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that sounds a lot better than you might expect. Dialogue is nice and crisp, making the fast-talking and oftentimes strangely voiced characters easy to understand, even when there are other elements in the scene like music or heavy sound effects.
The mix is also very well balanced; voices, music and effects all come across on a very even keel and seem to have been integrated with one another quite nicely. Most other sound elements are given a chance to shine as well. Though LFE is typically kept to a minimum, there are several moments where additional sound elements manage to come through on the track, giving a well balanced and enjoyable – if not entirely immersive feel – to the film. Additionally, the mix is free of scratches and hissing that might otherwise mar a release of an older film like this.
Overall, this is a very good sound mix that provides a surprising amount of oomph to a film that before now, probably had very little.
It's been 30 years since Raimi, Campbell, Rob Tapert and the rest of the crew filmed 'Crimewave' and even though it's not remembered as fondly as 'Evil Dead' (unless Fede Alvarez is lining up to remake this one next), it still has some significant appeal for lovers of zany comedies or fans of Raimi's work. This release from Shout Factory comes with a very nice transfer and much better than expected sound, as well as some great special features that are highlighted by the unabashed commentary of Bruce Campbell. This one definitely comes recommended.