by Jay Seaver
There are a lot of screenplays that don't get made, and not just because the writers don't have the proper connections. Consider the case of "Man with the Screaming Brain", which writer/director/producer/star Bruce Campbell has had kicking around for nearly twenty years, roughly since "Evil Dead 2". In that time, he's done a lot of decent work on television and film while friends and collaborators Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert have gained power and influence in Hollywood. Campbell built something of a fanbase, too, but it wasn't until last year, when he signed a two-picture deal with the Sci-Fi Channel, that he finally got to make this movie. And although many fans were excited to see "Screaming Brain" finally get made, the truth is that it languished in development hell so long for a reason: It's not very good.Sure, expect this story to be good is probably asking a little much. Campbell plays William Cole, an American business man in Sofia, looking to invest in the city's infrastructure. Along for the ride is his spendthrift wife Jackie (Antoinette Byron). Their ex-KGB cabbie Yegor (Vladimir Kolev) takes them through the gypsy section of Sofia, where they run afoul of Tatoya (Tamara Gorski), and ex-girlfriend of Yegor's who attempts to seduce William - and, when that doesn't work out, kills him. And Yegor, for good measure. But wait! Doctor Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov (Stacy Keach) has a theoretical process to combine two brains in one body! And his assistant Pavel (Ted Raimi) has built a primitive, shambling robot that a human brain could be transplanted into!
"Eagerly awaiting this for years shows how messed up genre film fans can be."
I like Bruce Campbell, and had reason to hope for good things here: He's a funny guy, more likely to err on the side of overacting than woodenness, and the plot of the film plays into one of his strengths. I imagine most people who have seen Evil Dead 2 would agree that Campbell is, in fact, quite good at the slapstick bit where two different minds are attempting to control his body, leading to a spirited fight with his own hand. He was also pulling in some decent talent - Ted Raimi won't make anybody's A List anytime soon, but he's got the same "good B-Movie guy" rep as Campbell, and Stacy Keach has some decent credits as well. Joseph LoDuca was part of the Renaissance Pictures gang with Campbell and the Raimis, and though Sam Raimi has mostly worked with Danny Elfman on recent films, I'd generally take LoDuca's scores over Elfman's recent work.
So you'd think, with a group of people who know B-movies inside out and have shown the talent to do higher-profile work, Campbell would be able to target what makes for a fun, rather than tiresome, B-movie and do it. This, sadly, doesn't happen. Part of it, I think, is that this material has been with him for twenty years, and perhaps he's too attached to the fairly primitive story that he wrote when he was young and inexperienced, just changing names when the filming location changed from expensive Los Angeles to economical Bulgaria when it could have used a major overhaul. But that's not all; too often, the movie seems to be missing the excitement that can make an objectively sub-par movie into a guilty pleasure, the "if we don't put our all into this, we may never get a chance to make a movie again" energy. It's like watching a AAA baseball team which is filled with guys who have bounced around the minors or who just didn't make the cut for the big-league team. You can't really accuse anybody of dogging it, but you'd almost rather watch the AA team: They may be raw, but they're enthusiastic.
Not many raw but enthusiastic folks here. Campbell is playing a sarcastic, difficult-to-like ugly-American type, and the audience can't ever really get behind him. Kolev's Yegor isn't interesting, either, so we're never terribly interested in who's going to gain control of Cole's body. Jackie's a pretty standard character type, too, and Ms. Byron doesn't infuse her with a whole lot of individuality. On the plus side, Tamara Gorski is at least lively in her character's psychosis. Ted Raimi adds a goofy Eastern European accent to the combination doofus/put-upon assistant character, which is sort of his specialty. Stacy Keach, meanwhile, gives a clinic on how to properly mail in a performance - he puts what seems like zero effort into it, but his lines are generally entertaining, at the very least.
This isn't the first time Campbell has been in the director's chair, although his previous efforts have mostly been episodes of television series. And this looks like TV; it's very workmanlike direction, keeping the focus squarely on the action in the middle of the screen, not doing anything particularly interesting with composition, and a lot of the banter - whether it be Cole talking to Yegor's disembodied voice or with other characters - seems stiff. To be fair, Man with the Screaming Brain is made for TV, having received a brief theatrical run courtesy of Anchor Bay figuring his fans are good for some midnight show money. Still, made-for-television and direct-to-video movies have gotten better since this was first conceived. If Campbell had made this in the 1980s, it might have seemed like enjoyable campy cheese; now, it's just sub-standard.I wanted to like Man with the Screaming Brain, I really did. And I still kind of enjoyed it, but I couldn't ever shake the feeling that I should have been enjoying it more.
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originally posted: 01/14/06 11:24:11