Oh Ken Russell, you dirty old Brit. The director of films like Tommy, The Devils, Altered States, and Lisztomania certainly never shied away from the bizarre and controversial. At times I think the director was more concerned with shocking his audiences than actually telling a coherent story. Case in point: his offering for 1984, Crimes of Passion.
Our story focuses on a hooker named China Blue (Kathleen Turner). She’s willing to do just about anything for her clients and is in demand because of it. Her activities have also attracted the attention of a street preacher, Rev Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins). Whether or not he is actually a man of the cloth or just crazy is unclear, but he clearly has an obsession with bizarre sexual implements and the lovely China Blue. He feels compelled to “save” her.
Meanwhile, we also follow the story of suburban husband and father Bobby Grady (John Laughlin). He has a small home security business and a rocky relationship with his wife of many years, Amy (Annie Potts). He ends up taking a private investigating assignment for the owner of a fashion design house who suspects an employee named Joanna Crane is selling patterns to competitors. Bobby follows Joana and finds out that she spends her nights as the hooker called China Blue. However, he keeps this a secret from her employer.
Bobby soon becomes obsessed with Joanna, or is it China, and the two spend a night together. Of course, things start to get worse with his wife, helped by the fact that the couple hasn’t had sex in months. All the while, lurking in the shadows, the Reverend stalks China Blue…often brandishing a knife like vibrator. Just as Bobby leaves his wife to be with Joanna, the Reverend comes dangerously close to “saving” her…which is to say ending her life.
Crimes of Passion is over-the-top in so many ways, but that’s par for the course when it comes to Ken Russell. There are several explicit sex scenes which I could describe as “out-of-control,” but that would be putting it lightly. That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of the plot that are intriguing. The story involving of a successful fashion designer who moonlights as a hooker and is stalked by a crazy man who thinks he’s a preacher has potential. Anthony Perkins is the strongest element here. Let’s face it, Perkins can do crazy…he was Norman Bates, after all. This part is very different from Norman, however. There is no mask here, the Reverend is crazy and dangerous and there’s nothing he can do to hide it. Even though many of his scenes with Turner are a bit over-scripted, Perkins delivers a solid performance.
The other side of the story, that of a suburban couple struggling with intimacy, also has some strong moments. Annie Potts’ performance is especially genuine and relatable, even if John Laughlin is somewhat lacking in charisma. So, with two relatively interesting parts to this film, it is frustrating that they don’t come together well, and the blame for that falls squarely on Russell’s shoulders.
Bottom line is he’s sloppy here. The director is easily distracted by things that he thinks are stylistic or shocking, but are ultimately headache inducing for the viewer. There are quick flashes of erotic Chinese paintings awkwardly placed throughout the film that serve no purpose.. Many scenes are lit by flashing blue or pink lights emanating from neon signs supposedly just outside the window of the seedy hotel where China Blue works her trade. I literally had to close my ears for fear of a seizure coming on. Worst of all is an embarrassing scene in which Laughlin strips down to his boxers, dons a shower cap and ties two basketballs wrapped in panty hoes to his ankles to impersonate a penis. At times I wonder how Russell was able to convince, what I assume are, self-respecting actors and actresses to perform according to his juvenile whims.
Crimes of Passion may have actually worked had it chosen just one of its storylines and seen in more fully developed. Having someone on hand to reign in Russell might have been a good idea too.