After eighteen years of false hopes and false starts, Bruce Campbell’s long touted project, “Man with the Screaming Brain” has finally come to fruition. Having spent three grueling decades—the 80’s, 90’s, and the first half of this decade—moving from production company to producer to financier, Campbell and associate David M. Goodman rewrote and retooled the script, desperately searching for someone to produce the film. But no one wanted it. No one wanted it because it’s a film that defies categorization. Bruce himself describes it as “Out of Towners—with a brain transplant,” which, although an apt description, doesn’t begin to describe the inherent bizarreness of such a unique and strange movie.
William Cole, CEO of an American Pharmaceutical company, travels abroad to seek out ways for his corporation to diversify. Wife in tow, he winds up in Bulgaria, of all places, to research a subway system abandoned after the fall of communism. Upon arriving in Bulgaria, Cole hires a cab driver, Yegor, and, after witnessing Yegor kick some Gypsy a*s, Cole is so impressed that he hires him to be his on-call driver. While Cole and his wife, Jackie, are traveling in the cab—which turns out to be a long, almost interminable sequence—we’re introduced to Dr. Ivanov and his sidekick Pavel, a Bulgarian who’s co-opted American inner-city culture. Ivanov is somewhat of a mad scientist who has discovered a way to link organisms, namely brain tissues, like Lincoln logs. Aware that he has stumbled on something big, Ivanov plans on meeting Cole while he’s in Bulgaria and selling this exciting new formula to him.
“Man with the Screaming Brain” is a film that finds itself struggling to tell its story while wrestling with its budgetary constraints. As a result of its low budget, the film overcompensates by limiting its sets and locations and exchanging potential action for scenes anchored with dialogue. The first half of the film, while providing the occasional joke, moves along at an awkward pace. While plot points are hit home, not a whole lot goes on, and the film seems to drag from the opening sequence. But, although slow, it is not a painful experience. The acting is always entertaining. Bruce Campbell, as always, gleefully plays it snide and smug; Ted Raimi delivers his best comedic performance as a gansta rapper trapped in the body of a Bulgarian nincompoop; Stacy Keach plays the role with aplomb, never milking the comedy; and Vladimir Kolev, as the hard boiled KGB agent turned cab driver, delivers a stellar performance, balancing his characters’ hard edge with sympathy.
While the first half of the movie is hindered by its budget, the second half swings and rolls and moves at a fine pace, fully exploiting the strange story, and, at times, the low budget. There is a wonderfully funny scene late in the movie in which Cole, riding a Vespa, crashes. The Vespa hits a car, falls over, and is rocked by a minor, yet hilarious, explosion. The scene is not only a funny satire to big budget action movies—why does every car have to explode in Hollywood films?—as well as an ode, or a lamentation, depending on your point of view, to Campbell’s miniscule budget.
The movie really hits its stride when Cole meets up with a Gypsy woman intent on marrying someone, anyone. They fool around, and she is convinced that he is the one she will marry. But no dice. Cole tells her that they were fooling around, nothing more, nothing less. The gypsy goes nuts, and bashes Cole’s head in with a steel pipe. Then Yegor shows up, gun in hand, and attempts to kill the Gypsy, Tatoya, but, it turns out, Yegor and Tatoya were once engaged, and now she enacts her revenge by snagging his gun and shooting him.
From here the movie begins its bizarre descent. Dr. Ivanov, having sent Pavel to retrieve their bodies, repairs Cole’s brain by replacing the damages tissue with parts of Yegor’s brain, connecting them, as the movie jokingly reiterates, like Lincoln logs. But things don’t go as planned, and, when Cole wakes from his temporary death-sleep, he realizes that Yegor is alive and well in his brain, and is able to control the left side of Cole’s body. After the partial brain transplant, the movie becomes a tongue-in-cheek revenge film, with Yegor and Cole colluding to track down Tatoya and making her pay for what she’s done to them. But before that, they must learn to work together; for a time their predicament becomes a battle of the wills; Yegor wants Cole to do one thing, begging for money, for example, and Cole wants to do another, returning the money and thanking the citizen. So they fight. A lot. And Cole winds up beating the hell out of … Cole in scenes reminiscent of Campbell’s brilliant “Evil Dead 2” physical comedy. While his age and bulkiness have slowed him down—we’ll probably never again see the famous Campbell front flip—his physical comedy still shines through, and, coupled with his trademark timing and smug delivery, we are reminded once again why Bruce Campbell is a cult unto himself: he is simply the greatest of B-movie actors, a man who, while taking his job seriously, never takes his roles too seriously, even when he’s playing previously thought dead Rock ‘n Roll icons.