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DVDanger: 'Crimewave'

Sam Raimi's weirdest, plus nunsploitation and swinging sleazy London
Richard Whittaker, 8:47am, Sat. May. 18, 2013

There are two Sam Raimis: There's the one that does considered, heartfelt adult dramas, and then there's the crazy bastard who throws everything at the screen and sees what sticks. Sensible Sam was AWOL in 1985 when Rabid Raimi was making Crimewave.

OK, let's take a little sidestep here. In a parallel world, in 1998 the Sam Raimi that made A Simple Plan met up with the Coen Brothers that had just completed Fargo. They bonded over their shared love of quirky rural crime dramas and the problems of shooting in snowy locales, and something spectacular emerged. Instead, they came together when the Coens were becoming critical darlings off of Blood Simple, and Raimi had become a gore guru with the unstoppable power of the original The Evil Dead. And somehow they produced Crimewave.

Jeebus.

When I was looking for a new release to crack open for this new column, I could not have hoped for something more surreally resurrected than Shout! Factory's latest loving restoration. After Evil Dead first draft Into the Woods, Crimewave is sort of the lost Raimi movie. And with good cause. I remember seeing a busted-up VHS rental copy in the early 1990s, and having no clue what it was supposed to be. In a noir spoof, nebbish security video installer Vic Ajax (Reed Birney) falls for aloof love interest Nancy (Sheree Stevens). Unfortunately, he is recounting their star-crossed relationship while strapped in the electric chair. The framing mechanism is a DayGlo, supersaturated homage to Edward G. Robinson's performance in 1932's pivotal crime drama Two Seconds, as Ajax finds himself in the middle of what should be a smart, sassy comedy, but feels more like an over-extended Three Stooges sketch. And we're talking Shemp, not Curly.

This was going to be a headlining role for Bruce Campbell, right up until the studio told Raimi he didn't have star power. So instead they picked Birney. Lucky escape for Campbell: Birney's career survived this film, mainly by jumping to off-Broadway productions, the same way that Sheree Stevens picked up recurrent roles in Dallas and Walker, Texas Ranger. Both of them seem utterly out of their depth, with little clue what Raimi wanted from them as the blunder through a plot about hit men, dance routines and constant nods to the golden age of prat fall comedies.

There's a lot of potential here. Five years earlier, Paul L. Smith (the poor man's Bud Spencer) had experimented with screwball as Bluto in Robert Altman's hit-and-miss Popeye. Raimi actually hired him here because he was so menacing as the head guard in Midnight Express. Yes, once upon a time this was a much more serious, Hitchcockian drama, but that disappeared during the production. Shame, since he might have worked well in a part closer to what M. Emmet Walsh pulled off as the sweaty gumshoe Visser in Blood Simple. He's probably the best thing here, playing the (inexplicably overdubbed) part of Faron Crush, one of the two inept hitmen (along with the late, great character actor Brion James) who kickstart the plot with their over-the-top approach to murder. He also has one of the best scenes, and indubitably the movie's best homage to the kings of physical comedy. The Parade of Protection, as he crashed through a series of doors on display, is a clear precursor of the fantasy sequences in The Big Lebowski. Similarly, Raimi recycled an abandoned subway fight sequence two decades later in Spiderman 2. So it's not a complete loss.

Crimewave comes from the absolute best of intentions. Raimi and his friends wanted to go back to Detroit, their hometown, and make a film that everyone could see. The Evil Dead put them on the map, but it was scarcely family-friendly viewing. But therein lay its downfall. Raimi was really still a skilled amateur, and this was his first film with a real budget. He lost battle after battle with the studio, and depended on friends to double or triple up as producers and cast members. The end result is a whirlpool of a film, and not in a good way.

It's too simplistic to say that nothing works. It's that every decision is a bizarre one. The Coens, underneath it, wrote somthing that seems to be a first draft to the screwball energy of Raising Arizona. But when someone said screwball to Raimi, he was thinking more along the lines of What's Up, Doc?. The end result is like how Steve Spielberg described his own screwball screwup, 1941. He went in thinking, "Well, let's put in lots of things everybody likes." Well, everyone likes raisins and everyone likes soup, but if you put them together, you just get raisin soup. The first act is painfully slow, with only the third reaching the madcap energy required to gloss over the chaotic lack of logic.

But beyond the curiosity value, there is one solid reason to pick up the Blu-ray: Campbell's commentary, a feature-length conversation with extras director Michael Felsher. Aside from a glorious bit part as the caddish Renaldo "The Heel" and a good career as a body double for the second unit, he was also a co-producer. Anyone who has heard a Campbell commentary track knows that he has never been afraid of dishing the dirt, and he's pretty open about how bad the experience was, and how much it had to be saved with secondary shooting. Hint: He's also not a big fan of actors who buy into their own bullshit. It's pretty hilarious.

Felsher does an admirable job on sweeping everything he can on the extras. After all, this is a movie that pretty much everyone involved has disowned, and it was filmed so skin-of-its-teeth that there was no one around the record the debacle. How cheap was this? There's one stunt where Raimi used his friends as crowd extras, because he was confident they wouldn't sue him if it went wrong. But there's a pretty charming interview with Birney, including a glimpse of some behind-the-scenes footage from the freezing shoot in Detroit. He even found an abandoned title sequence from when the film was laboring under the terrible title Broken Hearts and Noses.

By contrast, Redemption's release of nunsploitation classic The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine is pretty bare bones, but in its own way as unrelentingly nutty as Raimi's lost sophomore feature. A mockbuster before such things existed, it blends Ken Russell's 1971 artsploitation landmark The Devil with Romeo and Juliet. Lucita (Jenny Tamburi) has been sent to a convent by her father for the crime of loving Esteban (Paolo Malco), the heretical son of a rival family. Assisted by the loyal local verger Joaquin (Gino Rocchetti, who seems to have wandered in from a nearby historical sex comedy), Esteban evades the Inquisition by hiding in Lucita's convent. Bad idea, because it's being run by with an iron first and sadistic streak by the abbess (Françoise Prévost.)

Cue the traditional nunsploitation tropes of implied psychosexual depravity, historical anachronisms, and the occasional topless whipping. Actually, for nunsploitation – a genre tied up in fascination about the malice of the Inquisition – it's surprisingly light on the lascivious cruelty. Instead it saves its most shocking images for a mass breakdown that, seriously, The Devils. Really. Just so mockbuster, but so well done.

That's all the responsibility of director Sergio Grieco. He is undergoing a little bit of posthumous reappraisal for his final credit, scripting 1978's Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato (or, as you'll more likely know it, The Dirty Dozen rip-off The Inglorious Bastards.) But he churned out 39 films in a 28-year career as a director. None were masterpieces, but he had a skill for jumping on bandwagons just as they were starting to pick up speed. He'd had some success with his Bond spoofs, the Agent 077 series, and would finish his career in 1977 with proto-pulpster Beast With a Gun. But here he ratchets Russell's pitch-black comedic instincts down a little, resulting in something that is both more schmaltzy and more sinister. Tamburi and Malco may nominally be the leads, but it's Prévost's steely depravity, and Corrado Gaipa as the zealous, toadlike inquisitor Father Onorio, who whip the movie into the delirious arms of insanity.

Grieco isn't the only Bastard getting the Redemption treatment this week. Director Enzo G. Castellari sees his 1971 crime thriller Cold Eyes of Fear repackaged. It's a little depressing to think that, within a decade, he was reduced to helming Jaws rip-off Great White, because his portrayal of London at its most swinging and sordid has a feverish intensity.

British lawyer Peter (Gianni Garko) picks up Anna (respected Italian stage actress Giovanna Ralli) at a surprisingly scummy dinner theatre, and takes her home. Unfortunately, all they find there is the corpse of his butler, and street thug Quill (Julián Mateos). He's no fan of the degraded state of the British capital. "It's a loo, love," he tells Anna. "You have to walk very carefully around the edge of the pot."

The master of the balancing act is Frank Wolff, playing aggrieved criminal Arthur Welt. Three years earlier he had opened up the bloodshed in Once Upon a Time in the West as the ill-fated Frank McBain (odd coincidence: Ennio Morricone provided the score for both films, but here he channels his finest Lalo Schifrin). He personifies the British fascination of the time with career criminals and social injustice, and brings a wounded pride to the role. He adds heft to the story, just as Castellari ramps up the terror with a series of innovative home invasion set pieces. It's not often that well-placed Latin and a cat pushing a door open provide such tension.


Next week's coming attraction in DVDanger: A double bill of drive-in mayhem with The Town That Dreaded Sundown and The Burning.

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