Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
Two movies called Crime Wave were released in 1985. One is an American production that was helmed by Sam Raimi from a script by the Coen brothers. The other — and the one I’ll be discussing here — is an independent Canadian film from the mind of John Paizs. Granted, it’s not uncommon for films with the same title to be released in the same year, but what makes this example interesting is the fact that both films are similar in other ways. They are both essentially genre-blending oddities that combine elements of 1950s crime yarns with wacky, surrealist black comedy. And while they do so in completely different ways that barely resemble each other, it’s quite funny that they came to fruition around the same time.
Of course, if someone had to tell you that there’s a weird movie from 1985 called Crime Wave that contains these influences, chances are they’d be talking about Raimi’s film since it’s, you know, a Raimi movie. Paiz’s film is an obscure gem that hasn’t even received a proper physical media release outside of Canada, but it’s surely only a matter of time before a company like Arrow or Vinegar Syndrome discovers it and rectifies this ridiculous oversight. Until that day comes, Prime subscribers can watch it right now.
What’s ‘Crime Wave’ All Aboot, Eh?
Crime Wave is a movie you must see to believe, but its plot is fairly simple: Steven Penny (played by Paizs) is an aspiring “color crime film” writer who suffers from writer’s block. He’s capable of writing the beginnings and endings of stories, but he struggles with “the stuff in-between.” Steven can only write at night, when the street lamps outside are all lit up. His story is documented by Kim (Eva Kovacs), a young girl who is in love with Steven, and decides to try and help him by putting the struggling writer in touch with the mysterious Dr. Jolly (Neil Lawrie).
Throughout the film, the beginnings and endings of Steven’s crime stories play out on the screen, and they involve all kinds of crazy characters and situations. These include tales of Elvis impersonators, Bonnie and Clyde-esque criminals that operate as door-to-door air spray sellers, and oddball self-help gurus. Saying anything else about these segments would be spoiling their surprises, but each story is a treat.
Elsewhere, in the film’s real world setting, there’s a serial killer on the loose, lurking in the shadows, and he’s far more demented than any of the characters that Steven’s imagination has conjured up. It’s only a matter of time before the protagonists cross paths with the deranged lunatic as well. Needless to say, there is a lot going on in Crime Wave.
What Makes ‘Crime Wave’ Sublime?
Crime Wave is a masterclass of pastiche filmmaking, and it’s also really freaking funny. The film contains an assortment of disparate influences — ranging from educational documentaries to sitcoms to 1950s B movies — and it combines them to create a deadpan masterpiece that’s juxtaposed with the kind of absurdist humor that would make Monty Python proud. Some scenes will remind you of the cinema of Guy Maddin and David Lynch. Then, out of nowhere, a dog will appear driving a truck. Despite featuring some dark ideas, however, Crime Wave‘s style is mostly sweet and cutesy. There’s an innocence to the movie that’s utterly charming, which fans of directors like Wes Anderson and Taika Waititi will most definitely appreciate.
At its core, however, Crime Wave is a satire of pop culture that simultaneously explores the trials of independent filmmaking, as well as the struggling artist’s creative process. Paul Corupe of the excellent Canuxploitation blog proposes that the film gently skewers America’s dominance of pop culture, in addition to commenting on Canada’s struggling film industry at the time. Crime Wave was undoubtedly inspired by Hollywood releases, but it’s very much a product of the Great White North, whose genre cinema has always been underappreciated.
Steven’s struggle is bound to resonate with any aspiring artist and dream chaser. The character is outlandish, but he’s a manifestation of Paizs, albeit with the volume turned up. The director was working as a traffic clerk while making the movie, having previously dabbled in the world of animation. But he decided to turn to live-action storytelling after being unable to break into that industry. That said, with the exception of directing a few episodes of Kids in the Hall and other shows, Paizs has struggled to get his own projects up and running since Crime Wave. In 1999, he did direct a wonderful alien invasion flick called Top of the Food Chain, but that’s another story for another day.
More than anything, though, Crime Wave is sublime because of its originality, comedic prowess, and bold experimentation. The movie truly is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and the real crime is that more people aren’t aware of its existence.
And In Conclusion…
Admittedly, Crime Wave isn’t for everyone, but what movie is at the end of the day? Still, this one might be too strange and amateur for some viewers, though I imagine most people will have a lot of fun with it. Put it this way: first time I saw it was at a screening in a packed out theater in Glasgow, Scotland. No one had any idea of what was in store for them, but by the time the end credits rolled, an audience full of strangers had bonded through laughter and a shared experience that they’ll never forget, knowing that they’d just discovered one of genre cinema’s best kept secrets.
This is a movie that deserves to be seen, and one that many viewers will cherish for the rest of their lives after falling for its charms. Paizs’ story is heartbreaking as he’s a filmmaker with an original vision and the talent to back it up, as he demonstrated with this delightful treat. But it’s never too late to appreciate his work and spread the word.