Man with the Screaming Brain

038333_33Some filmmakers struggle for nineteen years to make an intensely personal drama about their inner demons. Bruce Campbell, B-actor extraordinaire (and proud of it), moved heaven and earth for the same amount of time to make a comedy about a guy who gets half of a Bulgarian cabbie’s brain. Man with the Screaming Brain, which made the rounds at city art-house theaters on the back of Campbell’s book tour before settling in on the Sci-Fi Channel and DVD, is fun for fans of Bruce and the wacky ’50s sci-fi flicks that inspired it. At a screening in Brookline, Massachusetts, Campbell presented his directorial feature debut fairly modestly, making no claims for its being the savior of cinema. It’s simply the sort of goofball entry you rarely see in theaters anymore — a drive-in flick, really.

Campbell argues persuasively that today’s big-budget flicks are just drive-in flicks with more money and less charm than the drive-in fare of the past. Man with the Screaming Brain has less money and more charm. Granted, the plot is a bit thin; the script (by Campbell and David M. Goodman) had to be rewritten at the last minute when the story’s setting was moved from East L.A. to Bulgaria, and it shows. Why is the movie set in Bulgaria? Because it was cheaper to shoot there — nothing in the story demands it, and when Campbell’s arrogant capitalist character William Cole finds himself sharing his skull with a thuggish communist cabbie (Vladimir Kolev), we don’t get the philosophical conflicts we might expect. Not that Campbell is all that interested in that aspect — “What the hell do you want, a treatise? It’s a damn brain-transplant story,” he might sneer.

If you eventually happen across Campbell’s labor of love on TV, you might enjoy it for its oddball blend of camp and slapstick — a tone familiar to fans of Sam Raimi, whose earlier films with Campbell, no matter what genre they officially belong to (horror, action), lean more towards comedy. There’s a fine, giggly moment when a post-operative Campbell (with a humongous forehead scar) scampers around town as horrified kids flee from him. And Sam Raimi’s brother Ted, whose mug is known to fans of Xena, pulls out all the stops as a hip-hop-obsessed Bulgarian scientist’s assistant (working for a hammy Stacy Keach) who builds a robot in which the brain of Campbell’s wife (Antoinette Byron) is deposited. Truly, the movie might’ve been even more fun if it had been set in the ’50s, the era to which it’s most relevant, but there’s only so much you can do for under a million dollars these days, even in Bulgaria.

I suppose I’d better be honest about my experience of the film: Going to a great old theater that specializes in weird movies, shaking hands with the affable Campbell and listening to his ruthlessly wise-ass Q&A before the flick, made for a night I wouldn’t trade for anything. The film itself isn’t quite something you’d go miles out of your way for. That isn’t a reflection on the film so much as an acknowledgment that it has modest aims and fulfills them. It’s more comfortable as a DVD, something you discover on your own by accident and then pass along to friends or use as the middle film in a Bruce Campbell video night. Hell, I enjoyed Crimewave, the little-seen 1985 Raimi farce (cowritten by the Coen brothers) that Campbell witheringly slams every chance he gets twenty years later, but I didn’t have to go any farther than the town video store to see it. Man with the Screaming Brain is a decent and diverting piece of work from perhaps the hardest-working man in movies. Don’t expect the end-all be-all, ride with the slapstick and the premise, and you’ll do fine.

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Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, cult, science fiction

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