The Man with the Screaming Brain (review)

Brain Freeze

Am I gonna have to take Bruce Campbell off the Perpetual Boyfriend list? It would be a very sad day indeed on which I was forced to take such desperate measures, but my patience does have limits, even with the man who gave us Ash and Brisco County Jr. and Roland the Intrepid Explorer and Smitty the Argus reporter and Autolycus the king of thieves and…

*sigh* Okay, I spotted Bruce Alien Apocalypse, cuz everyone’s allowed an off day, even a god, so we won’t talk about that one. But The Man with the Screaming Brain is just a horribly cruel geeky tease. Campbell simply cannot toy with our affections this way, seducing us like he did for the last few weeks with those hilarious ads on the SciFi Channel, the ones that knew exactly what we wanted to hear: Oh yeah, baby, I know how you like it, all snarky and pulpy and B-movie and self-referential and deliberately trashy…
And it wasn’t just me who got left rather, ahem, unfulfilled by Brain. No: I gathered a small party of geeks at my house Saturday night, and we were all set with our wine and our cheese and our shrimp cocktail and our keeping the damn cats away from the shrimp — cuz we are geeks, but we are sophisticated geeks, and we were ready for some sophisticated geek entertainment, which may not be what one should typically expect from SciFi Originals on Saturday night, but c’mon: this was Bruce Campbell, for Bruce Campbell’s sake, writing, directing, producing, starring in a flick called — *snort* — The Man with the Screaming Brain. How could this be less than geeky perfection?

All I can say is, it’s a good thing alcohol was at hand, because rarely have I been so disappointed in a movie. I wanted, was expecting, had been promised intentional badness, some sly and subtle and silly self-aware commentary on the legacy of B-movies and terrible science fiction that has shaped the mindset of an entire subculture, a big pile of winking, ironic fun. And I got unintentional actual badness that could not be redeemed by the hamhanded stringing together of B-movie clichés: scary gypsies, former KGB agents, cheap foreign locations, girly catfights, transplanted brains, and Ted Raimi in full-on dork mode. It’s so cluelessly dumb that it manages to make the genuinely Eastern European actors in the cast sound like they’re putting on fakey accents. This movie — how you say? — it suck.

It starts sucking hard right away: when nothing much at all had happened for the first half hour, we had to open another bottle of wine for mere survival’s sake. There’s a lot of cab-driving around some Bulgarian city, cuz it was cheap to shoot there and I guess Campbell in his many production hats wanted to make sure knew he wasn’t shooting in dumbass British Columbia like everyone else does. It’s also remarkably unfunny in that first half hour, which is damn nigh unforgivable for a movie called The Man with the Screaming Brain that’s written, directed, produced, and starring Bruce Campbell. Campbell (Sky High, Spider-Man 2) — in his many production hats — seems to be relying on his own reputation to make us laugh: his William Cole, for instance, is supposed to be “the CEO of the largest drug company in the world,” which is laughable, but not the way it should be. It’s clear, as perhaps it has never been before, that the “Bruce Campbell” persona is not inherently funny but needs a context in which to be funny. Cole could well have been the most famous pastry chef in the world and it would not have materially changed anything about the movie. There’s nothing inherently ridiculous about Cole or Campbell’s performance except that we’re all supposed to automatically find him funny cuz he’s Bruce Campbell.

Campbell, by the way, is hilarious as himself; I’ve seen him in person, and he’s every bit as snide and bitingly funny as you’d expect him to be. That that fails to come across here is a puzzle, particularly when it’s safe to assume that Brain is very much his vision.

I admit, I laughed once or twice later on, after the brain of a KGB agent turned cab driver (Vladimir Kolev: Spartacus) gets fused to Cole’s brain by mad scientist Dr. Ivan Ivanov (Stacy Keach, whom I would have said used to have some dignity, but apparently lately he’s only been appearing in flicks with names like Galaxy Hunter and Frozen Impact anyway). Brain has one or two moments of actual inspired insanity, one or two moments in which it achieves the cheesy B-movie nirvana it has been aspiring to all along. But mostly it’s inexcusably lazy and hoping that we won’t notice how lazy it is in the dazzle coming off our idol Bruce Campbell.

Oh, and the brain? It doesn’t scream, not even once.

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