Going Back (review)

Bruce Campbell: The Early Days

Bruce Campbell is never gonna love me now, but I can’t help it: I have to make fun of his second movie, Going Back, just out on DVD for the first time this week [buy it at Amazon]. It’s wrong and it’s evil and it’s not fair, but I have to be brutally honest: I laughed a lot while watching this tender, gentle coming-of-age movie. And it’s all Bruce’s fault.

No, see, wait: Campbell made this movie — a teeny tiny independent film produced for about $3 — way back in 1982, just after he made Evil Dead, and in the two decades during which Going Back has been mired in a weird rights limbo that prevented anybody from seeing the film, he has gone on to become, you know, Bruce Campbell. So it’s not like, when we all saw Army of Darkness and Brisco County the first time that we were saying to ourselves, “Oh, hey, it’s that guy from that sweet little movie, and wow, he’s funny!” No, what happened is we got used to to him as a snarky wiseass with nothing but wit and chainsaws and boomsticks as his only weapons against undead armies and villains from the future and the like, and now, when we look back at him in a movie that, for all that it does have to recommend it, still suffers from the typical things that low-budget indies suffer from, well… Fans of Campbell’s are fans of Campbell’s for particular reasons, and it’s almost reflexive that we’re going to expect certain things when we see him onscreen.
Look, I’ve already said it’s not fair, but there we are. When Brice Chapeman (Campbell) and his buddy Cleveland Neal (Christopher Howe) set off on a hitchhiking road trip across rural Michigan in the summer before college — this would be 1964 — they run into the usual things that low-budget movies run into, like a lot of sitting beside the road waiting for rides, a lot of talk that’s more simplistic than it needs to be in order to succeed as the emotional drama it wants to be, and a lot of acting that’s not quite comfortable enough with itself to pull off that emotional drama. That’s why there are so many very bad low-budget horror movies: you get a bigger bang for your indie buck, as a filmmaker, with a lot of blood and gore hiding the fact that everyone involved — screenwriter, director, cast — is still learning their crafts. So when Brice and Clee meet weird old Jack Bodell (Perry Mallette), who picks them up in his old farm truck and invites them to stay at his ramshackle ranch for a bit, can you blame me for expecting that Jack’s barn is actually hiding a secret abbatoir where he butchers his unsuspecting young victims? Or that after Brice engages in a little nookie with local girl Cindy (Susan Waderlow Yamasaki), she’ll have to tell him she’s pregnant… with a two-headed monster baby?

I’m not trying to be mean, honestly. The worst that can be said for writer/director Ron Teachworth, who doesn’t appear to have made another film, is that his reach exceeded his grasp, which is no bad thing: there is ambition here that is almost fulfilled. And the worst that can be said for the film is that it’s just a little too like a shorthand version of the things it wants to say about how young people see the world through a gauze of idealism, how the time-softened memory of a pleasant sojourn is often better than the reality was. (The cinematography is gorgeous, and worth a look; DP John Prusak went on to shoot Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.)

Certainly, anyone who’s a true devotee of Bruce Campbell will want to see this, and not just so you can go all Mystery Science Theater 3000 on it. Because here genuinely are the roots of a lot that we love about him and the work he’s done since: the wry charm, the magnetic screen presence, and of course the hints of veiled gravitas that peeked out more than occasionally in Brisco County, burst out in his stunning guest turn on Homicide, and gave Bubba Ho-Tep far more consequence than a movie named Bubba Ho-Tep had any right to expect.

I told you it was all Bruce’s fault. If he hadn’t turned out to be so damn good, Going Back with him would be an entirely different experience, and a far less entertaining one.

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