An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · September 21, 2005, 8:33 PM EDT
Man With the Screaming Brain

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 21, 2005, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

There’s so much going on in the first half of Bruce Campbell’s feature directorial debut Man With the Screaming Brain that it’s a shame the story becomes significantly simpler—and thus loses momentum—in the second. Campbell, who also wrote and produced the movie (with David Goodman), stars as William Cole, a jerk of a capitalist who arrives in Eastern Europe seeking fresh plunder. A “love quadrangle” is soon established as ruthless gypsy woman Tatoya (Tamara Gorski) sets her predatory sights on Cole, while his wife Jackie (Antoinette Byron) develops a thing for taxi driver Yegor (Vladimir Kolev). That’s not to mention Dr. Ivanov (Stacy Keach), who has come up with an “anti-rejection” serum he wants to introduce to the world, and whose goofball assistant Pavel (Ted Raimi) has his own agenda.

The local characters have connections of their own, and the busy plotting keeps Man With the Screaming Brain moving at a nice, funny clip for a while. Eventually, both Cole and Yegor wind up dead, Dr. Ivanov places part of the latter’s brain in the former’s noggin to restore him to life and Pavel’s “mo-bot” creation also starts taking part in the action. The complexity of the first half gives way to a less satisfying series of chases and confrontations for the last 40 minutes or so, with time-outs for assorted schtick and Bruce abuse. Nobody does physical comedy with a genre bent better than Campbell, but as Cole and Yegor fight for control of their shared body, it’s hard not to be reminded of All of Me and Campbell’s own sublime possessed-hand routine in Evil Dead II. Amazingly, even with all of Campbell’s contortions, the film is stolen by Raimi with his hilarious line deliveries, assorted non sequiturs (some of which, we learn on the disc, were improvised) and jaw-dropping rap number under the closing credits.

On the other hand, Campbell and Goodman are to be applauded for their tenacity in sticking with this project for 18 years and their resourcefulness in utilizing the Bulgarian setting (dictated by financial concerns) to full effect. The movie’s tortured history is chronicled in the best extra on Anchor Bay’s jam-packed DVD, the “Neurology 101: Evolution of the Screaming Brain” featurette. Here, the two filmmakers stand beside a chalkboard listing all the companies (including Fangoria Films) and individuals who once had a chance to make the film, and relate with wit and amused cynicism why none of them did.

Between the “Brain Surgeons: Making the Screaming Brain” featurette and an audio commentary by Campbell and Goodman, you’ll learn everything you could ever want to know about how they brought the movie to fruition once the Sci Fi Channel, Creative Light Entertainment et al. finally gave them a green light. There’s plenty of detail about how they adapted to shooting in Bulgaria (“Two countries away from Iraq,” as Campbell puts it), in terms of both altering the storyline and dealing with the local crews and customs. Among the countless great anecdotes, my favorite is probably the one recounting how the assistant director narrowly escaped being rubbed out by the local Mafia.

In addition, Campbell shares plenty of down-to-earth directing tips that aspiring moviemakers will definitely want to take note of, from the handling of character details and exposition to simple but meaningful visual tricks. Bet you didn’t know that the screen direction in which vehicles travel can impact a viewer’s emotional response to the scene! Once you’re done listening to Campbell’s wit and wisdom, head over to the “Behind the Scenes” section for some cool silent (with musical scoring) on-set footage, in which we get to see both the star (doing his own stunts) and the remarkably thin “Jackie-bot” performer do their thing.

Further visual supplements include storyboards and the opening pages of Dark Horse Comics’ four-color adaptation; though the latter is supposedly based on Campbell’s script before it had to be pared down for the budget, what’s on view here doesn’t appear much different from what’s on screen. The latter has a pleasing look in the DVD’s 1.77:1 transfer, which has a few soft and overly bright spots but generally sports solid colors and a sharp image, with a modest but effective Dolby 5.1 Surround mix. It’s a slicker product than often results from such a tangled history, and serves notice that Campbell may have it in him to be as entertaining a director as he is an actor. But this DVD also reconfirms what anyone who’s seen him at a convention or heard one of his other commentaries knows: hearing Campbell talk about his work can be just as much fun, if not even more so, as watching it.