A slanted, hard-to-find tribute of sorts to cheapie color pictures from the 50s, Crime Wave also stands alone as its own weird, singular thing. The movies it owes an explicit debt to are called "color card movies" here after the beautiful promotional postcards you could get in the cinema lobby, and the protagonist's bedroom is lined with posters that helpfully identify particular titles (Hell's Island, The Unholy Wife, Hot Cars!) The scattershot, sketch show-like nature of Crime Wave has more immediately in common with hairy counterculture faves from the 70s like The Groove Tube and Kentucky Fried Movie, though there's a youthful naïveté and occasional heavy-heartedness here that's absent in those. Shot in Winnipeg, it also has the cerebral quality of edgier Kids in the Hall stuff (director John Paizs made several segments for the troupe).
The main story, ripped through with tangents and self-contained mini-features, follows Steven Penny (Paizs), a silent aspiring moviemaker (good with beginnings and endings, he's bad with middles) attempting a screenplay called Crime Wave. He writes in a rented room above a garage, and only by streetlamp, repeated shots of which are the movie's most haunting. His neighbor is the young, narrating Kim (Eva Kovacs), who dedicates herself to encouraging Steven's writing pursuits. Kim reads Steven's various discarded stories, which allows Crime Wave its satirical asides, often violent goofs on conformity and New Age bullshit. Kim enlists the help of a Texan screenwriting doctor named Jolly (Neal Lawrie). A ghostly encounter between Steven and the deranged doctor-cowboy-quack on a dark road is unforgettable, and predicts The Cowboy scene in Mulholland Drive.
Paizs had made several shorts (some with Guy Maddin) before this, but Crime Wave feels unmistakably like a First Film—overambitious, unfocused, naïve, but also hypercreative and fresh. Certainly not everything works, Kovacs' little-girl narration wears, and the constant self-reflexiveness can feel sweaty. The targets of its parody were sometimes unclear to me, which could be a Canadian thing—I felt like the thirteen year-old me trying to decipher SCTV. I've since come around on SCTV, and perhaps someday I can more fully embrace Crime Wave. An understandable cult curio, it has that mysterious, relic-like quality that does make you want to unlock its secrets.