DVD Review: The Man with the Screaming Brain
Bruce Campbell is America's most famous jobbing actor. George Clooney regularly spends his millions on developing worthy but unprofitable films. Brad Pitt sunk the relatively low-budget Fight Club by demanding a huge pay cheque. But most actors can't choose projects they like, or make demands. They take small roles in shit films, because they need to put food on the table. Although he may be something of a household name, Campbell identifies strongly with these actors, still belongs among them in many ways. He's also written, in his autobiography If Chins Could Kill, about the importance of actors understanding what happens behind the camera as well. It's no good giving the performance of your life, he argues, if you're not even in the frame.
Reflecting on this, it's hard not to have relatively high hopes for The Man with the Screaming Brain, Campbell's directorial début. The results, however, while they hint at better things to come, are not so great that I could happily recommend this film to anyone but ardent Campbellites.
In interviews, Campbell has shown a far better grasp of plot and character than your typical A-list Hollywood screenwriter, so it comes as a surprise to be faced with the peculiar lack of tension and motivation to Screaming Brain. I think figuring out why might be clearer when you consider that after years of trying to crack the mainstream, Campbell only seems to have recently noticed that he's an icon among alternative and indie film fans. Screaming Brain seems like an attempt to emulate indie films that focus on character and ambience more than plot and special effects, but by someone not all that familiar with how such movies actually work. The situations depicted may be well devised, but all too often the result is more made-for-TV than made-for-Sundance.
The film certainly doesn't work as a whole, nor in most scenes, but it still has moments – often moments that rely either on Campbell's skills as an actor or as a physical comedian. A scene in which his character – a ruthless industrialist who has the brain of a former KGB agent grafted onto his – orders at a restaurant while arguing with the voice in his head and confusing the waitress is particularly well done. Another sequence, which simply involves Campbell staggering through Bulgarian landmarks like a possessed maniac, also displays some rather striking cinematography. Other than that, things hang together pretty poorly, with no real flow to proceedings, either in plot or in tone – a problem exacerbated by the odd bit of sloppy editing.
I like the idea of The Man with the Screaming Brain, and it certainly gets an A+ for effort. I'll be back for Campbell's next effort as actor-director, but I don't expect to pass many people back-tracking to his début while on my way there.
And finally, for once I will actually review the DVD disc in question. Importantly for me, there were no subtitles, whether for the hard of hearing or otherwise. Meanwhile, lurking in the extras is a nice little feature about how Campbell and his co-writer raised the money for the film – a straightforward short that I found more entertaining than the feature itself.