The Power of an Un-killable Novelty Film

You know you’ve found a gem when Netflix sends you a DVD that has Chinese and English titling on the disc as well as the menu and the prohibitory message about copyright infringement. I’m not sure who would want to steal footage from this movie but people SHOULD want to. Novelty films, last because they are in and of themselves un-killable. Cults keep them alive, certainly, but they are much like Water Bears (microscopic tough guys). They’ve been around for half a billion years, survived 5 mass extinctions, tolerant of the vacuum of space and remain in watery depths until they sneak up and bite you, why? Because nothing does what a Water Bear does better than a Water Bear. I posit it is the same for Sam Raimi’s early film “Crimewave” AKA “XYZ…Murder,” amongst other weird foreign titles.

Possibly one of Raimi’s most doomed and difficult films of all time, it was also penned by Joel and Ethan Coen. Raimi had recently worked with Joel Coen who edited “Evil Dead” and was timid to accept the script for Crimewave, partially because Ethan was still working as a statistics accountant at Macy’s. It was Bruce Campbell (cast as the resident “heel” in the film) who helped convince Raimi to work with them after he’d read an early draft of “Blood Simple.” Raimi and the Coens would go on to collaborate on future projects that had similar vibrations of a cross-genre dreamscape. Novelty, and cross-genre are not words that studio executives can hear without being tense and volatile.

But Raimi goes for it. Evil Dead’s cult success warranted a sequel that was right down the production pipeline and the execs at Colombia had about $2.5 million dollars of faith in Raimi to make some pictures in Detroit. Difficulties arose initially when producers didn’t see Raimi’s buddy and collaborator Campbell in the lead role. Re-writes allowed the mighty chinned legend to fill a lesser role which permitted Campbell to remain throughout the production. The entire process of filming triggered episodes of coked up lunacy from the lead actress, Louise Lasser, and Brion James (recognizable as the android killer in the first scene of Blade Runner) tried to exorcise his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s ghost from a lightbulb in his hotel room.

The weather in Detroit didn’t agree with them either (I’m not sure it agreed with anyone). At one point the crew had to risk sub-zero waters to break apart ice in a river that, according to the script, needed to be running. Dynamite was an incumbent solution. Having underestimated union fees and regulations, the budget ran half a million over the 2.5-million-dollar forecast. Studio executives tried to reel it all into their domain, clashing creatively throughout the post productions of the film which eventually separated Raimi from a final cut and perhaps changed his and Campbell’s ultimate vision of both the film, and of the industry. The Coens, having just written the script, were sitting pretty on their accomplishment with “Blood Simple” so had less to lose. However, the novelty of the film becomes special when one notices signatures of both the Coens and Raimi.

Imagine writing a dark and thrilling crime story and then turning it into a horrific cartoon version of itself. Raimi’s love for slapstick meets and basically overpowers the Coen’s brooding criminal intrigue. What ends up on film is a vaudevillian form of expressionism in which one can’t be sure if they’re horrified or tickled. It is in this ambiguous quintessence that the film draws interesting notes.

The story follows a poor, falsely accused, schmuck trying to explain his innocence in flashbacks while sitting on the electric chair. The criminal elements taking place between two treacherous partners in a Security Firm that decide to cheat and/or kill one another. When one hires a couple of psychopathic exterminators, things unravel quickly, and the bodies begin to stack. Meanwhile, our hapless hero, Vic, a mild-mannered camera installation technician working for the security company attempts to win the heart of the uninterested woman of his dreams. His thoughts being that people ought to take care of one another, that installing cameras isn’t going to make him happy forever. But somebody, perhaps the girl whose attention he strives for, can change things for him, and as he cares for her so too will she care for him, make him grow, make him loved, yadda yadda. Vic is eventually targeted by the two killers when their escapades towards their dead employer’s wife entangles the rest of the tenants in the building, including Vic’s love. The madcap insanity culminates in a car chase scene that warrants some respect as it remains engaging in its inventiveness and its indelible weirdness. Vic even gets saved from the electric chair when Helene and her group of nuns (there are nuns for some reason) break their vow of silence and corroborate the man’s innocence.

When things get weird is when they get interesting, I feel. It’s these evolutionary steps in the career of filmmakers that harness who they are and transform them through what some might call a baptism of fire. This was, perhaps, Raimi’s baptism of fire, and while he might like to forget it, we must not. Question it, bury it, launch it into space if you have to, but know that while we may die, it will live on. XYZ…life?

Erich Onzik

Erich is a sentient spiritual parasite that inhabits the bodies of human hosts until they've served their purpose. Currently, he possesses the body of a writer, cartoonist, and butcher living in NYC. He's written short pieces for The New York Times, Thrillist. He also wrote a graphic novel, and enjoys peddling it at bars.

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