Written and directed by John Paizs
A married couple attempt to rob a house while making a door-to-door sales call: one pitches the customer, the other fakes a trip to the washroom and searches for valuables. When their cover is blown, the husband bludgeons the man to death with a glass candy dish, and sticks a broom in the woman’s wheelchair spokes before ramming Milk-Bones down her throat. What villains! And all in the name of becoming the top sales team in the nation—that is until they’re gunned down by police at the National Sales Awards ceremony: a pitch-perfect ending to their violent crime wave.
The above is one of many zany and creative ideas Steven Penny (played by writer, director, producer, John Paizs) has for a color crime film he wants to make. The only problem is that he has no middle. He has countless beginnings and endings, but writer’s block prevents him from expanding on ideas any further. Lucky for Steven, his friend Kim (Eva Kovacs) sees massive potential in his writing, and with her encouragement, and a little dose of real-life experience—aka his own encounter with crime—Steven turns his struggles into a fully realized feature film.
Steven Penny is an archetype for any aspiring writer, but he is also a stand-in for Paizs himself. Filmed in Paizs’ hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Crime Wave (1985) is a self-reflexive comedy along the lines of Adaptation (1992) via Kids in the Hall (a series Paizs has directed for). Full of gags and a variety of creative set-pieces, Paizs throws a hundred ideas out there, and many of them hit the mark, despite the repetitious nature of their delivery.
In some ways, Crime Wave has a similar feel to another 80s cult classic: Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Though vastly different in both form and plot, both embody an energy derived from cinephilia, or more accurately, a love for genre filmmaking—a trait Quentin Tarantino would later take to the mainstream.
Yet, unlike much of Tarantino’s work (excluding Death Proof (2007) and Jackie Brown (1997) – his two strongest films), Crime Wave’s best utilization of pastiche is not found in the throwback crime scenes or the movie posters on the walls; it is found in the film’s form and aesthetic, where National Film Board of Canada shorts are pastiched through colour, lighting, an un-attached narrator, and an educational monologue (from Kim) addressed to the viewer. At one point, Kim even invites us to participate in an exercise designed to show how persistence of vision works when watching a projected film.
Not to say Crime Wave is better than any of Tarantino’s stuff – but for an extremely low-budget Canadian feature, Paizs proves he is a talented, perceptive artist, who cares about spreading his love of film.
To put it simply, Crime Wave works because it is funny and intelligent without ever feeling pretentious. Take for instance one of the most utilized images in the film: a close-up of a street light turning on. On the surface, it is used to parody Steven’s silly regime, where he can only work by street light – yet the image also doubles as a motif for inspiration itself. Anyone who has had trouble writing knows that the struggle to get started is often harder than the writing itself; so in reality, writer’s block is about continually re-establishing your motivation—or keeping your light burning, per se. Well, Paizs goes way over-the-top with the metaphor, having Steven literally get his head stuck in the street lamp after a violent encounter with a psycho cowboy. The moment is incredibly silly, yet also insightful, because it is real-life experience that finally allows Steven to write a movie about crime.
The real crime, however, is that Crime Wave is only available on an out-of-print VHS. Luckily, though, John Paizs is an extremely nice guy, and when I contacted him a few years ago about acquiring a copy of Crime Wave for a screening, he was more than happy to provide one at an insanely reasonable price. And if you don’t believe me that Crime Wave is much watch, check out some of the user reviews on IMDB.
– Griffin Bell