In theory it seemed that Crimewave could not fail. From the director of The Evil Dead and the writers of Blood Simple, both of which had recently enjoyed modest commercial success and critical acclaim, the movie was a blend of film noir, screwball comedy and comic book violence. Blood Simple had already proved that modern audiences were still willing to embrace old-fashioned crime thrillers, while The Evil Dead had boasted a deranged energy and offbeat humour that moviegoers had responded well to. Yet when it was released in 1985 Crimewave was largely overlooked by the public, dismissed by critics and disowned by those responsible. Despite this, both Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers, the filmmakers behind the movie, would return to various themes and ideas from the picture in their subsequent work.
Joel Coen had first made the acquaintance of Raimi when he was hired as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead, then under its original moniker Book of the Dead. Both had spent their teenage years shooting amateur short films on Super 8, Coen with his younger brother Ethan and Raimi with friends from high school and college. Raimi had always been a fan of the Three Stooges and his love of madcap comedy and slapstick violence had frequently made its way into many of his earlier efforts, but it would be during the screening of one of these shorts that he would first be inspired to direct a horror picture. It had never been a genre that had interested him, as growing up he was more a fan of comic books but, watching how his audience reacted to a scene where a character leapt from the backseat onto his victim, he soon came to the conclusion that if he were to direct a horror movie it would perform well at drive-ins and easily make back its budget.
Although crafted as a horror picture, The Evil Dead owed as much of a debt to Raimi’s love of comedy, as well as the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft. Having made a thirty-minute short entitled Within the Woods, Raimi had secured financing from local businesses with the help of his two friends, producer Robert Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell and had shot the film independently in the backwoods of Morristown, Tennessee. Having been refused by several major studios, Raimi succeeded in gaining distribution from infamous producer Irvin Shapiro, who suggested renaming the picture The Evil Dead and submitted it to the Cannes Film Festival, where author Stephen King’s glowing review helped to bring it to the attention of horror fans. By this point Raimi had become close friends with Joel Coen, a graduate of New York University and Ethan, who at the time was working as a statistical accountant for Macy’s.
As they discussed their love of movies and pop culture the three eventually began writing together. The Coens had already completed a couple of feature length screenplays; a screwball comedy called Coast to Coast and Suburbicon, a murder mystery. Having succeeded in breaking into the industry with a low budget horror as he had intended, Raimi now expressed interest in turning to comedy and had conceived the basic premise for a comic book-style crime thriller called Relentless. But developing it into a script had become troublesome and so he decided to pitch his idea to the Coens in the hope that they would be able to add some fresh ideas into the mix. Soon a story began to take shape, incorporating the common Hitchcock trait of ‘the wrong man,’ in which an innocent is accused of a crime he did not commit. In this case it was Vic Ajax, a security system installer who becomes entangled in a murder and double-crossing plot as his boss hires two exterminators to kill his business partner after it is revealed his wife is having an affair.
A murder plot against a spouse and their lover has long been a staple of the film noir genre, as well as the novels that had inspired them. It was the central theme of Double Indemnity, both the book by James M. Cain and Billy Wilder’s classic adaptation, as well as Cain’s earlier novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Yet while the protagonists of those stories would be the ones plotting the murders, in Relentless the main character would be a naïve young man who, through a series of unfortunate events, is accused of the crime and sentenced to death. The exterminators hired to carry out the act could best be described as an evil variant on Laurel and Hardy, the popular double act who enjoyed their most success during the 1930s, which served as a contrast against the more subdued characters that populated the script.
While The Evil Dead had become a surprise success in both the United States and Great Britain it had also fallen foul of controversy. In the UK the movie had been included on the Director of Public Prosecutions’ list of offensive titles, dubbed ‘video nasties’ and Raimi had even been summoned to appear in court to defend his work. The film’s most shocking moment would depict one of the young female protagonists being attacked and raped by the branches of a tree as she wanders out into the woods after hearing a strange noise. ‘That scene initially was supposed to just be a ‘tree attack’ scene – the rape part kind of evolved as we were shooting it,’ actress Ellen Sandweiss explained to Love-It-Loud. Despite the acclaim that Raimi had received for his inventive filmmaking and tongue-in-cheek humour, some had found the movie too offensive and had tried to keep retailers from stocking the video. Perhaps it was this experience that prompted his decision to distance himself from the horror genre for his next project.
While Raimi began to shop Relentless around studios Joel and Ethan Coen had begun work on a new script, which would once again focus on a man hiring a hitman to kill his adulterous wife. Their new project would be inspired by both the hardboiled crime literature of Cain and the low budget horror movies that Joel had been editing, including Frank LaLoggia’s long-forgotten Fear No Evil and Romano Scavolini’s sleazy slasher Nightmare, although as legend would have it he would be fired from the latter after just two weeks due to poor time keeping. Ironically, under its more infamous title Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Scavolini’s movie would find itself on the ‘video nasties’ list alongside The Evil Dead.
The script for Blood Simple was a mixture of film noir and horror
Taking its name from a quote they found in Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel Red Harvest, the script for Blood Simple was a mixture of film noir and horror that told of a nightclub owner hiring a private investigator to kill his wife and lover, only to be double crossed and murdered. When the lover finds the body he believes the wife is guilty and tries to cover up the crime, although soon he begins to suspect that she will betray him. But the tone of the script would be far removed from the playful and goofy feel of Relentless and instead featured a drawn out sequence in which the lover attempts to clean up the blood after finding the body, yet due to his incompetence he only seems to make matters worse. Then, while disposing of the evidence, he realises that the man is still alive and so buries him in the desert while he is still conscious.
Following the success of The Evil Dead Raimi had relocated from Michigan to Los Angeles in order to pursue a professional career as a director. He invited the Coens to stay at his home while they attempted to find distribution for Blood Simple and, finding themselves brainstorming for ideas once again, soon developed a basic outline for another script called The Hudsucker Proxy. This would share some similarities with Relentless, which Shapiro had now suggested that they renamed The XYZ Murders. Both paid homage to Raimi and the Coens’ love of screwball comedies, particularly the fast-paced, overlapping dialogue of His Girl Friday, while the script would include several self-referential in-jokes, such as the prison that Vic Ajax was to be executed in being named the Hudsucker State Penitentiary. This is not an insinuation that both were owned by the same company, however, but it was simply a title that the Coens liked and would reuse once again in their 1987 comedy Raising Arizona.
It soon became clear that the script for The Hudsucker Proxy was too ambitious and would be too expensive to produce and so the project was shelved, prompting Raimi to turn his attention back to The XYZ Murders, which had now attracted the interest of Embassy Pictures. Raimi had intended for the role of Vic Ajax to go to Bruce Campbell, a veteran of his earlier short films and also the reluctant hero in The Evil Dead. But just one week before principal photography was to commence in Detroit, Michigan executives from Embassy ordered Campbell to perform a screen test. Unimpressed with his video audition they refused to allow him to star in the movie and instead insisted that the producers hire professional actors. Out of loyalty to his friend, Raimi returned to the script to flesh out one of the supporting characters, a slimy ladies man called Renaldo ‘The Heel.’
The actor hired to play the role of Vic would be Reed Birney, who had first made a name for himself in the Broadway production Gemini in the late 1970s. Having arrived in New York in 1974 and enrolled at the Circle in the Square Theatre School, Birney spent the next decade appearing in numerous Off-Broadway shows, although his film experience prior to The XYZ Murders was minimal. Playing the role of Helene Trend, the cheating wife who becomes the target of the exterminators, the studio suggested Louise Lasser, former wife of comedian-turned-director Woody Allen and co-star of several of his earlier films, including Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). The XYZ Murders would follow several years of television work for Lasser, which had seen her appear in episodes of Taxi and St. Elsewhere. Lasser’s character had previously made a brief appearance in Blood Simple via a message left on an answering machine, although the voice had been supplied by a then-unknown Holly Hunter, who would work alongside the Coen Brothers on Raising Arizona.
For the role of Arthur Coddish, one of the exterminators hired by Ernest Trend to murder his business partner, the producers cast Brion James, then best known for his performance in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, as well as the Eddie Murphy hit 48 Hours. James would reuse his demented, high-pitch laughter several years later for his performance as Max Jenke in the slasher flick The Horror Show, a low budget slasher which would also be released under the title House III. Sadly James passed away in 1999 at the age of just fifty-four, although in a career that had spanned a quarter of a century he had appeared in such hits as Red Scorpion, Tango & Cash and The Fifth Element. Coddish’s partner-in-crime, Faron Crush, would be played by Paul L. Smith, who had recently worked with David Lynch on an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune.
One of the producers, Edward R. Pressman, would make a rare appearance in front of the camera as Ernest Trend. The son of the founder of the Pressman Toy Corporation, his career began in the late 1960s but it would be during the 1980s that he would enjoy his most successful period, producing such blockbusters as Conan the Barbarian and Wall Street. Minor roles would go to Frances McDormand, the wife of Joel Coen and star of Blood Simple and Raimi’s younger brother Ted, himself a veteran of The Evil Dead. Ted Raimi would continue to appear in Sam’s movies over the years, taking supporting roles in Evil Dead II, Darkman and Army of Darkness. The filmmakers themselves would make uncredited cameos, while Raimi’s high school friend Scott Spiegel – who had been hired to handle the casting of the extras – would appear in disguise throughout the movie, taking on numerous background roles. Meanwhile, Campbell would perform various behind-the-scenes tasks due to his lack of screen time, earning himself a co-producer credit.
The XYZ Murders would be the first time that Raimi had worked with professional actors and the problems that would come with this, such as egos and demands. He was also not used to dealing with a real film budget, which came to approximately $2.5m and inevitably with this came certain expectations from the studio, which would add further pressure on the young director. The three-month shoot took place in Detroit in temperatures that occasionally reached minus-thirty, resulting in lakes freezing over and the cast struggling to remain warm. This was not the first time that Raimi had subjected Campbell to unpleasant conditions, as he had covered his actor in fake blood and forced him to work while freezing cold on location for The Evil Dead, although even that experience would pale in comparison. Further issues arose when the production went over budget, forcing executives from Embassy to take a more hands-on approach, while cinematographer Robert Primes would also come under fire due to the shoot falling behind schedule.
But once filming came to an end the nightmare was far from over, as early in post-production the studio ordered that the editing be relocated from Michigan to Los Angeles so they could oversee the process. For Raimi, who had been allowed complete creative control on his first picture, this proved to be extremely frustrating but a visit to Embassy’s offices in Century City would only add insult to injury. The studio had hired a professional editor to re-cut the movie and, while Raimi, Campbell and Tapert were eventually allowed to remain in Los Angeles to try to salvage their movie, it became clear that the executives had little interest in what their twenty-something director had to say. Raimi was then forced to perform re-shoots in order film new sequences for the introduction and climax, while the studio also added a comedy score which the filmmakers felt belittled their picture.
The movie was previewed to a test audience under the title Broken Hearts and Noses, before the marketing department decided that Crimewave would be more marketable. Embassy gave the film a brief release before deciding to cut their losses and handed the rights over to Columbia, causing the movie to sink without a trace. The few critics who bothered to comment had very little positive to say, however, with Vincent Canby’s review for the New York Times stating, ‘Crimewave is far from being a gem. Though it runs a jokey eighty-three minutes, it’s not very easy to sit through. It’s of principal interest as an example of the kind of film likely to be made by young people who, though they have talent and enthusiasm, haven’t yet any distinctively personal point of view.’ Even fans of both The Evil Dead and Blood Simple were unimpressed, disappointed that it lacked the style and attitude of the filmmakers’ previous work.
While the execution of the film was far from inspired, what perhaps confused cinemagoers the most upon its initial release was how Crimewave refused to specify what era the story was set in or what genre it belonged to. Clearly a screwball comedy, the film had a look of both a comic book flick and film noir, yet also referenced technology that would place the story in the 1980s. Many of the performances seemed wooden and the dialogue forced, with only Campbell willing to embrace the schlock nature of the material. Clearly embarrassed by the end result, both Joel and Ethan Coen have remained silent about the movie over the years, often avoiding the subject in interviews and dismissing it as a disaster. Despite this, they would regularly reference aspects of the film throughout their subsequent career, from recycled editing tricks in Barton Fink to men awaiting execution by electric chair in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Two years after the release of Crimewave the Coens returned with their own madcap comedy Raising Arizona, which would rescue their career and bring them to the attention of a wider audience.
It was a black comedy and they put funny music to it to help you laugh
Raimi, however, has been more outspoken about the picture, publicly dismissing the movie and criticising Embassy for how the filmmakers were treated. ‘They were not a good company to deal with. God has seen fit to dismember their company and sow salt where their offices were so nothing will grow,’ he told Fangoria in 1987 while promoting Evil Dead II. By this point Embassy had folded and Raimi felt understandably bitter about his experience working for them. ‘It was a black comedy and they put funny music to it to help you laugh. It wasn’t strictly a comedy; their comment to me when we finished the picture was, ‘What you have here is another one of your cult pictures and we don’t want that. What we’re going to do to your movie is re-cut it, remove its extremes to make it more acceptable to a general audience and release it on a wide scale.’ Now it is neither fish nor fowl.’
Campbell also commented on the film in his 2002 autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor; ‘…cross-genre films like Crimewave send marketing people scurrying under their desk. A straightforward genre film is no problem. If it’s action, you make sure someone is holding a gun on the poster. If it’s a drama, you show a big close-up of the lead actor looking pensive. Comedy is a little trickier, but you might employ a conceptual artist to ‘lampoon’ the film. Combine the genres, however and you’re asking for congestion on Madison Avenue.’ Raimi and Campbell would team up once again for their next project after being approached by notorious producer Dino De Laurentiis. The result was Evil Dead II, which re-established Raimi’s reputation and brought him yet another commercial success, while also helping to transform Campbell into a genre icon. Less graphic than its predecessor, the film saw Raimi exploring his love of slapstick once again and allowed his actor to prove that he could single-handedly carry a movie.
The success of Raising Arizona had made the Coen Brothers hot property in Hollywood, resulting in them being approached by Warner Bros. with the option to direct an adaptation of the long-running comic series Batman. But after the frustrating experience of Crimewave they demanded full creative control on their projects and, not wanting to work from second-hand material, opted instead to make the gangster flick Miller’s Crossing. Meanwhile, Raimi had approached Universal Pictures with the proposition of basing a movie on another comic superhero, The Shadow, but when he was rejected by the studio he decided to create his own with Darkman. Following the surreal drama Barton Fink, the Coens felt that it was time to return to one of their earlier screenplays to finally bring it to fruition.
The Hudsucker Proxy had been gathering dust in their drawer since the mid-1980s, before they had even released their first feature, but the critical acclaim of Barton Fink and the adoration they had received from their peers was enough to convince them that they were up to the challenge. Through their agent, Jim Berkus, the Coens were introduced to Joel Silver, who had produced some of the most successful action movies of the 1980s, including Commando, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. An avid fan of their work, Silver saw potential in the script and offered to co-finance the production alongside Britain’s Working Title Films. While there were comparisons between The Hudsucker Proxy and Crimewave – both had been conceived around the same time and were ostensibly screwball comedies – this time the Coens not only had complete control but a budget of $25m, ten times that of Crimewave.
Once again The Hudsucker Proxy would divide critics, although this time for different reasons. While the common opinion was that this was their most visual and accessible movie to date it was criticised for lacking emotion and depth. ‘This is the best-looking movie I’ve seen in years, a feast for the eyes and the imagination,’ declared Roger Ebert in his analyis of the movie. ‘But the problem with the movie is that it’s all surface and no substance. Not even the slightest attempt is made to suggest that the film takes its own story seriously.’ The plot was far different to that of Crimewave and its execution was more professional (although a cast that included the likes of Paul Newman and Tim Robbins most certainly helped), yet in a way they were kindred spirits.
For Raimi, whose subsequent career would include three Spider-Man blockbusters, Crimewave is one picture that he has spent the last three decades attempting to distance himself from. ‘That was awful, it’s hard for me to talk about it,’ he confessed to author Maitland McDonagh. ‘The studio overpowered it and I was a kid, twenty-two years old and didn’t understand what was happening. They bullied me out of the script I wanted; they bullied my actor out of the lead; they bullied my musician off the picture and put on a ‘funny’ score; they got rid of my editor and cut it themselves; they controlled the mix…The whole thing was just awful. I should have walked away from it; I wasn’t smart enough to take my name off it; I wasn’t a member of the union so I didn’t know what my rights were. I just had such a bad experience that I’ve got nothing good to say about it.’
While they may have spent almost thirty-five attempting to escape from the memory of Crimewave both Raimi and the Coen Brothers have subconsciously returned to the picture time and time again. There is no denying that the movie was a disaster and those responsible have every reason to be embarrassed by it, yet it was the first studio film by a group of filmmakers in their twenties who had embarked on an ambitious project, only for it to fall apart around them. It was their first true taste of Hollywood and it would be an experience that would have a positive impact on their careers, forcing the filmmakers to always demand creative control on every project they have participated in ever since. ‘Crimewave was a lesson about abject failure – no matter how you slice it, the film was a dog and everyone involved can pretty much line up to take forty whacks,’ admitted Campbell is his book. ‘As filmmakers, we failed to execute a misguided concept and our studio refused us the benefit of any doubt.’