By the time this DVD hit my desk, I had already heard murmurs of dissent among the Bruce Campbell camp (Camp Bell?) lamenting the downfall of their idol, who had somehow become unworthy of godlike status after the recent release of his hard-fought labor of love, THE MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN. I first heard about Campbell's efforts to get his brainchild (pun intended) from the printed page to the silver screen in an article from UK magazine FEAR over fifteen years ago, when the rising cult star was still burning brightly on the basis of his EVIL DEAD II reputation (ARMY OF DARKNESS was still an unknown factor at that time), and my mind reeled at the crazy cinematic possibilities. In the wake of Bruce's occasional brushes with the movie mainstream (thanks partly to his lifelong friendship with Sam Raimi), as well as two best-selling books and a wealth of television experience, I believed the ultimate realization of the B-Man's own pet project would be, if nothing else, a damn good time. As with so many projects of this kind, I remained hopeful, but my cynical nature inevitably dictates the same response to these matters: "It could be really cool if it works... too bad it's gonna suck ass."
Well, I can't say the worst-case suction scenario has come to pass, although the ferocious anti-buzz I've heard lately surrounding this film would lead one to believe it had, in a big way. To read some of the scathing fanboy feedback out there, you'd think Bruce spent 90 minutes of screen time belittling each of his fans by name (reference Shatner's immortal SNL "Get a Life" sketch for details of this fantasy), then flipped them off and mooned them for good measure, just before an end credit crawl which concludes with the words "You Will Never Get Laid. Kill Yourself." I recall a comment from a certain well-known critic so disgusted with Campbell that he jokingly refused to buy the soup that bears his namesake! I won't go that far, out of respect to a truly clever and entertaining gentleman. Let's just say I was a bit... underwhelmed.
It doesn't help that SCREAMING BRAIN was produced by the Sci-Fi Channel at the nadir of their current "Bulgarian Bargain Basement" phase - an endless conveyor belt of movies-of-the-week produced on a shoestring in the admittedly exotic but (more honestly) dirt-cheap production environment of Eastern Europe. This turns out to be a double-edged kind of proposition. I compare it to a misleading hotel package, which offers Old World charm and local color, but the brochure fails to mention the apparent lack of modern amenities, and instead of a mint on the pillow, there's a dead rat. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Bulgaria is a wonderful place, but I wouldn't want to make seventy-three movies there in a three-month period, which I'm starting to suspect Sci-Fi has been doing. Apparently Campbell re-worked his originally LA-based story to suit the new setting, and I'll admit, it doesn't feel shoehorned in. In fact, the culture-clash that forms part of the story's essential irony stems entirely from this new conceit, and it works pretty well.
That being said, here's the plot in its new incarnation: smug, arrogant American pharmaceutical entrepreneur William Cole (Campbell, looking surlier than I've ever seen him) arrives in Bulgaria to attend a conference, dragging along his plastic-looking trophy wife Jackie (soap regular Antoinette Byron). Bickering constantly, the pair employs the services of cab driver Yegor (Vladimir Kolev), a former KGB operative whose cold-war skills help them escape a nasty confrontation with a band of car-thieving gypsies. The encounter also draws all three of them into the devious web of the homicidal Tatoya (Tamara Gorski), whose quest for the perfect husband has left a lengthy trail of bodies in her wake.
All the while, eccentric medical researcher Dr. Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov (Stacy Keach, channeling Rip Torn) and his dorky, hip-hop-obsessed assistant Pavel (Ted Raimi, goofy as usual) have been pursuing Cole for a slightly more noble purpose: to convince him to finance Ivanov's revolutionary organ-transplant technique. They never get a chance to meet, until circumstances literally deliver Cole to their doorstep - thanks to a dubious four-sided triangle of lust, deception and murder that eventually leaves William, Jackie and Yegor for dead, the result of Tayoya's handiwork.
Ivanov's transplant technique is then given its ultimate field test, resulting in Cole returning to consciousness with a really nasty surgical scar and bits of Yegor's gray matter sharing cranial space with his own. Jackie's consciousness is also transplanted from her broken body into the circuits of Pavel's homemade robot (which looks like a refugee from a Devo video), accessorized with breasts and a cheap wig, and harboring an intense desire to seek bloody revenge on a certain psycho gypsy chick.
After both of the patients escape the doctor's lab, the expected zany antics ensue: William traipses across various historic monuments, frightening children and dumpster-diving for clothes, all the while arguing with his fellow brain-mate over whether to order scotch or vodka in a restaurant (he shoots both at once, nearly choking in the process); meanwhile, robo-Jackie roams the back-alley gypsy underworld in search of her foe, stopping occasionally to recharge her batteries (the cables don't attach where I naughtily assumed they would), with Pavel in clueless pursuit. Everyone stumbles around like that for quite a while, until the inevitable confrontation between all and sundry in the final minutes. The closing scene is not entirely unexpected, but ties things up with a clever twist.
If it hadn't been for all the buildup, I'd have written this one off as a passable Saturday time-waster, as is typical of the recent Sci-Fi Saturday movie content (sad, really, considering their able handling of epic miniseries like DUNE and TAKEN), but given the talent at the helm, I frankly expected more shoot-milk-out-your-nose moments than were offered. Not that it's without its comic merits: the very image of a beefy, shaven-headed Bruce - complete with Harry Reems mustache - speeding through various Communist-era landmarks on a pink Vespa is guaranteed to elicit a chuckle or two, and good ol' Ted can always be relied upon for over-the-top zaniness - especially when he starts bustin' B-Boy moves and freestyles like Yakov Smirnoff guest-starring on Soul Train. But the level of hysteria I've come to expect from these guys was missing, and the story seems culled from a below-average TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode. Sure, it's decent for a TV movie, and a passable feature debut for Campbell the director, but even on DVD (peppered with a few more cuss-words), it never allowed me to forget I was watching television.
Still, Anchor Bay has managed, as is their gift, to inject new life into the material with a fun and informative package. The nearly flawless widescreen image goes a long way toward dispelling the TV-movie stigma, and the Dolby surround and stereo options are also of excellent quality, creating a more cinematic experience that suggests the film might benefit from a theatrical presentation. AB also piles on extras galore, including two featurettes: the first is pretty much a standard making-of puff piece, but the next segment, "Neurology 101: Evolution of the Screaming Brain," is a must-see for any aspiring indie filmmaker, or fans of B-movies in general: it's basically a mini-seminar detailing each step of the film's development, with Campbell and producer David M. Goodman cracking wise in front of a gigantic chalkboard. Great stuff, and quite informative. Additional behind-the-scenes footage, a storyboard gallery and the trailer round out the package, as well as a collection of images from the comic-book adaptation of the film, which looks a bit more flamboyant than its source material.
For me, the high point of nearly any Bruce Campbell film is the ever-reliable commentary he provides on the subsequent DVD release, and once again, the man does not disappoint. A gifted storyteller with a cynical bent, Campbell has a knack for making even the most mundane of undertakings seem fun and often flat-out hilarious. This time, accompanied by Goodman, he spins anecdotes from both sides of the camera, making for a more satisfying experience than the film itself.
(Of course, it's nothing to rival the riotous, party-in-a-can atmosphere Bruce created with Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel and Greg Nicotero on the EVIL DEAD II commentary track - probably the most hilarious ever recorded.)
THE MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN holds the promise of things to come for Bruce Campbell the writer/director, and I still look forward to what's ahead. Perhaps he had to unleash the 15-plus-year baggage of this film once and for all to prove that he could carry off a feature film, and I'd say he acquits himself professionally, even if the end product is fairly routine B-movie fare. Now I'd like to see him really get down to business, with a decent budget and a more complex screenplay. Rumor has it he's planning on adapting his new novel "Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way" into a screenplay. With its sardonic, semi-autobiographical take on Hollywood weirdness, it could stand alongside Robert Altman's THE PLAYER and David Mamet's STATE AND MAIN as one of the funniest movies about the entertainment industry... as long as they don't shoot it in Bulgaria.