Friday, January 10, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Raimi Goes All-Out Bonzo

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody tells a story of broken hearts and noses... and puppy dogs.


When you first hear word of it, Crimewave sounds like it may be a lost classic, a gem that somehow fell through the cracks. Directed by Sam Raimi from a screenplay he co-wrote with Joel and Ethan Coen, it must surely be amazing... But the film took a long and winding road to make it from script to screen.

Initially written under the title Relentless when Raimi was fresh off of the successful, years-in-the-making release of The Evil Dead and the Coens were gearing up to get their debut film Blood Simple made, the story for Crimewave started off as a hard-edged film noir thriller. Once the script was in place, writer Sheldon Lettich (BloodsportLionheartDouble Impact) did a pass on it, but as happened on Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except, Lettich's work was deemed too dark and serious. As the project continued to develop, it went from the serious extreme of Lettich's draft to the opposite end of the spectrum, passing its original tone along the way and ending up as a slapstick comedy.

Raimi's roots were in comedy, the short films he made with his friends all through childhood had largely been Three Stooges-influenced comedy, and this film would be a return to those good old days.

Other titles considered after Relentless included The XYZ Murders and Broken Hearts and Noses, but Crimewave ultimately won out. (Though the movie is also known as Death on the Grill and The Two Craziest Killers in the World in other countries.)

It was a given that the star of The Evil Dead and those old comedy shorts, Bruce Campbell, would take the lead. At least, it seemed to be a given until the studio had their say. Campbell was forced to audition... and lost out. The studio didn't want Raimi to cast his friend as the star, he needed to cast a real, working Hollywood actor. And so Reed Birney was cast as lead character Vic Ajax, and Campbell was relegated to a supporting character called Renaldo "The Heel", a role that Raimi wrote more scenes for now that it was Campbell's. This casting kerfuffle was just the first of many issues the project would run into.

The tone had changed greatly from the original concept, but the film noir story elements still remain in the finished film.

In a wrap-around story that was filmed a year after initial photography, Vic Ajax is imprisoned in the Hudsucker State Penitentiary (Raimi would go on to co-write the script for the Coen brothers' 1994 film The Hudsucker Proxy), sentenced to die in the electric chair for murders he swears he didn't commit. As time ticks down to Ajax's execution, the backstory unfolds.

In the flashback that makes up the bulk of the film, Ajax works as a repairman for the Odegard/Trend Security Systems company. When Ernest Trend finds out that his business partner Donald Odegard plans to sell their store out from under to him, selling the building space to Renaldo "The Heel" so he can turn it into a "girlie revue" gentlemens club, he contacts Faron Crush and Arthur Coddish, the Center City Exterminators, who list right in their Yellow Pages ad that they kill "Men" among other pests like rats, mice, bats, roaches, and ants.

Paul L. Smith (best known for Midnight Express, the 1982 slasher Pieces, and playing Bluto in Robert Altman's Popeye) and Brion James (168 credits including Blade Runner, 48 Hrs., and Tango & Cash) play the oddball Faron and Arthur; Faron a burly, door-smashing juggernaut and Arthur a weaselly weirdo. Smith was dubbed over with a ridiculous deep, growly voice, while James puts on a whiney squeak.

As Odegard works in his office late one night, Arthur shows up with his pest-electrocuting contraption, which has different settings to deliver the appropriate amount of "MegaHurts" to whatever pest he's killing, and zaps Odegard to death.

Unfortunately, Trend's apartment is right across the street from the storefront, and his pestering wife Helene sends him over to the store to see why Odegard is working so late. At first, Trend is happy to see that the job is done and his partner is now his ex-partner... But then Arthur pops up in the shadows and kills him, too. Faron is not happy with this development; killing your employer isn't good business.

The situation spirals even further down the drain when Helene spies Faron nonchalantly carrying dead bodies out of the store. Now he has to kill her, too!

While mass amounts of murder and mayhem are going on at the Odegard-Trend store and the apartment building across the way, the hapless, socially awkward Ajax, who was given the night off by Trend so he wouldn't see anything suspicious, is out having a goofball night on the town, making a troubled attempt at wooing a girl named Nancy after she's jilted by Renaldo.

Eventually, Ajax takes Nancy back to her apartment, which is on the same floor that the Trends lived on, getting them both mixed up in Faron and Arthur's shenanigans.

It all builds up to a car chase through the streets of Detroit and onto the Belle Isle Bridge, the Center City Exterminators truck chasing down Nancy (behind the wheel of Raimi's trademark Oldsmobile) as Ajax and Arthur do battle on top of the vehicles. At one point, the script called for this fight to occur on top of a subway train, but it had to be changed to automobiles due to budgetary limitations. Raimi saved the subway train fight until he had a budget to pull it off with, and you can see a version of it in Spider-Man 2.

Despite that change, the production still went over budget and over schedule. This was also Raimi's first time working with professional, Los Angeles-based actors... and it seems that when the actors came out from Detroit, some of them brought cocaine habits along with them. Raimi had trouble with several members of the cast, various issues such as unreasonable demands, childish or unprofessional behavior, and even drug-fuelled madness between filming.

The problems didn't stop once the film was in post-production. Editing took over a year, Raimi lost his final cut privileges, the studio brought in their own editors, Raimi wasn't allowed to hire Evil Dead composer Joe LoDuca. His vision was compromised and he was steamrollered. It was a very troubled production, and the result has its problems. Those involved with the making of it were very disappointed, and there was fear that it could ruin careers just as they were getting started. Luckily, the Coens did very well for themselves off on their own, and Raimi was able to get back on his feet with Evil Dead II.

Still, Crimewave has its redeeming qualities. It is a very silly movie, it wears Raimi's Stooges influence on it sleeve and plays like a live action cartoon. This is the sort of movie where a smoking character can blow out not just a smoke ring but a smoke woman, which then proceeds to dance. There's a hallway of doorways, Faron pulls the rug out from under an entire room, a person can take three bowling balls being dropped on their head with no ill effect.

As in Scott Spiegel's Intruder, Stooges co-star Emil Sitka makes a cameo appearance... And it seems that Raimi and company may be cursed when it comes to trying to make Stooges-inspired comedies, because Scott Spiegel's attempt to make another such film, titled The Nutt House or The Nutty Nut, went even more disastrously than Crimewave did.

It may have been regarded as a disaster, but Crimewave really isn't. It's clear while watching it that the movie isn't all it could have been, but it is very funny and entertaining. The mix of film noir and slapstick can be awkward at times, but most of the gags are quite amusing, and the film is filled with Raimi's lively, inventive camerawork. Many may lament that Campbell wasn't allowed to star, but Birney does perfectly well as Ajax.

The amazing Shout! Factory put out a special edition DVD/Blu-ray pack of Crimewave last year, and I highly recommend that any Raimi and/or Coen fans check it out. It's not the lost Raimi/Coen classic that you'd hope for, but it's not terrible.

At one point in the film, a newspaper is shown that isn't just relevant to what's going on in Crimewave but also contains a reference to M. Emmet Walsh's character from Blood Simple, an Evil Dead reference that would make the basis for a great sequel to that film (the military seals off the cabin location to investigate a space-time disturbance), and the odd one out, mention of the "Gold of Galdiaz". This is a nod to a project that could have happened, Raimi wrote a treatment for something called The Gold of Galdiaz and got it copyrighted in 1986, but such a film has never been made.

I've written on the blog before about how I've used Raimi's movies to pick the middle names of my dogs, while their first names are references to the band Led Zeppelin. It started with my dachshund Zeppelin, who I got in 2002, within days of the release of Raimi's first Spider-Man film... and so Zeppelin was named Zeppelin Maguire. It continued last March, when I got a second dachshund and named him Zoso. Zoso came home the same weekend that Raimi's Oz, the Great and Powerful was released, so his middle name came from that film's friendly flying monkey Finley.

Now, Zeppelin Maguire and Zoso Finley have been joined by a third dachshund, and while his Led Zeppelin-related name was chosen early on, his Raimi-inspired middle name was harder to pick, since there is no new Raimi film in theatres this month. So I looked back over Raimi's filmography and came upon Crimewave, in which I found a character name not far off from Finley. Faron. In the movie, Faron Crush may be a total maniac, but the name Faron actually means "handsome servant". The servant aspect is reminiscent of Finley's role in Oz, and these dachshunds are certainly handsome. It seemed fitting.

And so, at the end of 2013, I welcomed home a new addition to the family, a puppy dog with the name Bonzo Faron.

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