Thursday, November 5, 2009

That's Why It's Called Unsweetened

There is no movie more obscure than a Canadian movie; there is no Canadian movie more obscure than a Canadian cult movie; and there is no movie more obscure than a Canadian cult movie that deliberately strives for obscurity.

Such is the case of John Paizs's The Big Crimewave (originally known as just Crimewave, but retitled upon home video release so as not to confuse with Sam Raimi's Crimewave)

In the '80s, it seemed as though any store owner with some empty floor filled oft times filled that space with a used VHS bin. Such was the case at one of the many record stores at the local mall; this one in particular I was addicated to. The source of these used VHS tapes was a mom 'n' pop video rental place in Virginia—I'd never visited the place but have long nutured a warmth and affection for the owners: they had great taste in movies.

While picking through the bin one Saturday afternoon, I stumbled across a The Big Crimewave. Thinking it was another, half-recalled movie (Screamplay, which sounds nothing at all like "Crimewave"), I bought it: hey, it was cheap, I was making good money, so what the hell, right?

Got it home, popped it in and was, literally, never the same person. I could not believe that someone had actually made a movie like this, a backwash-sucking, hysterically funny film that literally only one-half of one percent of the population of North America (and maybe parts of Europe) would actually get, let alone appreciate.

The Big Crimewave is the story of Steven Penny (John Paizs), a young filmmaker whose only desire is to become the world's greatest color-crime filmmaker. He moves into an apartment above the Brown family's garage and becomes the center of attention of Kim, the Brown's teenage daughter (played by Eva Kovacs). Before Penny can complete his color-crime epic, he must first fashion a script, which he works on only at night, by the light of a nearby streetlamp.

As his discarded scripts attest, Steven is a whiz at coming up with beginnings and endings (we are treated to visualizations of these throughout the course of the film—my favorite is that of Ronnie Boyles, the world's worst Elvis impersonator). What his scripts lack, and this is integral to the process of making color-crime films, are middles, the stuff that happens between the beginnings and endings. Despite Kim's efforts to console him, Steven descends into a deep depression, the characters from the various versions of Crimewave (the title of the movie we're watching, and the movie Steven Penny is desparately trying to write) oozing out of his brain to play cards, have sex, and otherwise torment their creator.

His depression ends when Kim ships him off to America via Greyhound to meet script doctor Dr. C. Jolly who, unbeknownst to both Kim and Steven, has gone homicidally insane! In short order, Steven Penny is saved by a dog driving a pick-up, is brained by a streetlamp, experiences a live-changing epiphany and returns to his garage apartment… Still unable to write the middle parts of his screenplays—but that's okay, because now Kim is ready to become his writing partner.

Deadpan comics like Steven Wright seem ready to leap out of their skins compared to John Paizs's Buster Keatonesque stone face as he wanders through the surreal Manitoban landscape he's created, uttering nary a word, a waif in a wilderness populated by pick-up truck-driving homophobes and eternally undrying puddles, while Kim takes on the job of narrating his innermost thoughts, to wit, "Steven often wondered what would happen in the Jaws of Life ever fell into the wrong hands."

It's unlikely you've ever seen a movie like this one before—it is, in fact, the only one of its kind, and that's exactly how obscure it is.

[Exactly how obscure is that? Put it like this: The Big Crimewave has only ever been released on VHS and in my life I have only ever held two (2) copies of the VHS tape in my hands—one is still in my possession, the other was given as a Christmas gift to a friend. It may be available as a download from some website but I have not yet found that site. If you find it, let me know!]


  1. Isn't it funny how the most obscure and/or the most low budget of films seem to always turn out to be the best. Why is that?

  2. Mike White of CASHIERS Du CINEMART also has a big love for this film. Never have been able to find it, although I did track down INVASION (aka TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN).