When we tell you to wait for the DVD of Bruce Campbell's directorial debut, The Man With The Screaming Brain, it isn't just because the film lacks the kind of visuals that demand a large-screen theatrical viewing. The DVD will be more entertaining because it will (hopefully) include a director's commentary track, and even if Campbell can't yet direct a successful feature film, at least he can spin an entertaining yarn about the process.
That was certainly the case at a recent showing of the film in Austin, Texas where Campbell appeared to talk about the picture and to sign copies of his new novel, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way. Shortly before the lights went down, the man best known to b-movie fans as Ash from the Evil Dead trilogy stepped into the spotlight. In between the same old questions about Evil Dead sequels, Campbell related tales about filming in Bulgaria. For example, there were portions of the budget that went towards "protection": each morning the local pack of feral dogs were satiated with large sacks of dog food, which allowed filming to continue. Campbell also talked about the first film he made (as an actor) in Bulgaria, Alien Apocalypse, and the lessons he learned on that shoot. Rather than try to pass Sofia, Bulgaria off as an American city, the Screaming Brain script was re-written to be set there. Campbell also refers to his time working on the sets of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules as a valuable learning experience.
"I used every trick I learned on Xena/Hercules in this movie," says Campbell with a grin.
It's too bad those tricks didn't result in a better picture.
"Whattayathink? Too Tom Selleck?"
Well-to-do American pharmaceutical tycoon William Cole (Campbell) arrives in Bulgaria with spoiled wife Jackie (perennial soap opera drop-in Antoinette Byron) to discover that life in Eastern Europe is decidedly not to his liking. A certain lethargic apathy towards the world instilled by a socialist regime remains in the hearts of the citizens of Sofia, so they are slow to respond to his self-possessed bluster and expectations of privilege. The capitalistic drive that Cole treasures is most strongly embodied by Sofia's criminals, who try to hijack the couple's taxi as they ride towards their hotel. Fortunately for the Coles, their driver Yegor (Vladimir Kolev) is a former KGB agent. Impressed with the way Yegor dispatches with the thugs, Cole hires Yegor as his personal driver for the remainder of his stay.
To say that things go wrong quickly would be a lie, but it is what we wish were true. Instead the plot plods methodically towards an entanglement of affections and storylines as Yegor's former gypsy girlfriend Tatoya (Tamara Gorski) insinuates herself into Cole's life (and wallet) while Jackie decides to alleviate her boredom by conducting a tryst with Yegor himself in the back of the cab. Breaking up this scintillating action are laboratory scenes with the brilliant-but-misunderstood Dr. Ivanov (Stacy Keach) and his hip-hop-loving robotics-genius assistant Pavel (Ted Raimi).
"And that's when Michael Jack --"
Ah, forget it. It's too easy.
Ivanov has perfected a process by which organs can be transplanted between hosts willy-nilly without genetic rejection, and he thinks Cole could be his ticket to scientific stardom. Though Ivanov's initial efforts to contact Cole with the details of his process are unsuccessful, the two finally meet when the Jackie-William-Yegor-Tatoya love rectangle goes awry and both Yegor and William end up dead at Tatoya's hands. Seizing the opportunity, Ivanov sends Pavel to retrieve the bodies from the morgue so that he might revive Cole using portions of Yegor's brain. This is a point in favor of setting the film in Bulgaria; for some reason we found it easier to believe that Raimi's bumbling idiot character could swipe a pair of cadavers from a Bulgarian hospital than from one in the States. Such matters of realism (including exactly how Ivanov's transplant process works) are inconsequential in a comedy like Screaming Brain, but sometimes we think about them anyway and little details like that can sell an audience.
Cole has plenty of questions when he comes to: Who am I? Why am I in this movie? Did I try to get Charlton Heston for the part of Dr. Ivanov before realizing I could only afford Stacy Keach?
Ivanov tries to convince the newly-resurrected tycoon that his process deserves immediate recognition. After all, Cole wouldn't be alive without it. Doubt is cast upon the process, however, when Cole starts having flashes of memory that don't belong to him. He escapes the lab in a fit of confused rage and ends up on the streets of Bulgaria with Yegor's voice in his head and control over one half of his body. Jackie, meanwhile, dies in a confrontation with Tatoya, so Ivanov thoughtfully transplants her brain into the body of one of Pavel's robots.
"I got cast in the Peanuts live-action
movie. Guess which part I got?"
The stage is thus set for a second act of hilarity that never quite gels. True to form, Campbell runs around screaming a lot and heaps abuse aplenty on himself. While we applaud the effort (nobody takes a punch to the face quite like Bruce Campbell), it is squandered on an otherwise humdrum movie. Placing his characters in a ridiculous situation is about as much comedy as Campbell can muster; there are precious few lines of funny dialogue to indicate what these characters think about their lots in life.
This is not to say that The Man With The Screaming Brain is entirely a waste of time; it has an energy and goofiness that will resonate with a certain segment of the b-movie audience. For these folks, simply seeing Campbell flail about on screen is enough. We wonder, however, if there are enough of them to support the movie, even on DVD. While watching Ted Raimi attempt to wring some comedy out of a rap number with his achingly unfunny Bulgarian accent, we were reminded of Bruce & Ted's salad days making Super-8 movies with Sam Raimi. (You can see these in the bootleg copies of Sam's Super-8 shorts that make the rounds at sci-fi conventions.) It's possible that The Man With the Screaming Brain is Campbell's attempt to recapture some of that renegade spirit. For his sake, we hope it worked on the set, because however much fun Campbell and company may have had making this little picture, precious little of that jocularity made it to the screen. Campbell and Raimi should have just turned on the camera and told stories for ninety minutes.