L.A. Weekly Books, 2002 updated edition of 2001 original, 344 pages, C$19.95 pb, ISBN 0-312-29145-0
If you’ve read one actor’s autobiography, you’ve read them all. They’re all ghost-written, self-serving and bland enough not to offend any fans, no matter their political or social persuasion. Dull childhood narrative until the actor gets his first major role; a few plates of photos sandwiched in the middle of the volume; a conclusion that always makes it sound as if success was inevitable and the best is yet to come. It’s entirely possible that they’re all coming from the same factory, a search-and-replace program being used to insert the proper names, small towns and movie titles
But as Bruce Campbell tells readers in the introduction, If Chins Could Kill isn’t that kind of book. For one thing, the pictures are generously scattered throughout. For another, it’s really not boring. You know how those celebrity biographies are usually dull until they hit the big-time? Not so here, as Campbell talks about making home movies (with, among others, Sam Raimi), entering the world of theatre, struggling through a variety of menial jobs and raising money for a film that would eventually be known as The Evil Dead.
The shoestring shooting of the film itself is detailed in all of its masochistic glory: A tiny budget and a lengthy backwoods late-fall shoot involving a bunch of nonprofessional actors can only end in painfully amusing anecdotes, and Campbell’s skills as a storyteller get a workout in telling us about fake blood, freezing conditions, an ever-smaller crew and the perils of balancing ambitions versus a budget obtained from dentist investors. Those who primarily know Campbell as the square-jawed hero of the Evil Dead trilogy will learn a lot more about his role behind the scenes of the films.
But Campbell has the added advantage of being a cult celebrity, which means that his approach in “telling all” is quite a bit closer to ordinary readers than most stratospheric superstars. His self-effacing charm and constant outsider’s relationship with Hollywood (even today, he lives one state away from Los Angeles) lead him to talk frankly about the meagre financial rewards of acting, the scourge of studio interference and the tradeoffs in the business. The highlights of the book are the making of the three Evil Dead movies, but there’s a lot of fascinating material about other projects and almost-projects. His description of shooting the Hercules and Xena TV shows in New Zealand is just as entertaining to read as his big-budget features experiences. (Although he tends to be more scathing in telling us about studio projects from Crimewave to Congo, including his almost-was starring role in The Phantom.)
Campbell’s style is superbly entertaining, unpretentious and has the hallmark of a seasoned raconteur. There’s seldom a dull moment, and the feel from the book is very different from the usual celebrity “autobiography”. This being said, there are still a few noteworthy lapses here and there: we know that Campbell doesn’t live near Hollywood, for instance, but the book doesn’t dwell a long time on the reasons that led him to Oregon –or the issues that such a home location presents for him. But he’s writing to please fans, and the book does tackle most of the subjects that they must have been wondering about.
The autobiography is considerably enhanced by the savvy design of the book, which blends photos, mementoes and diagrams alongside the text. (As the back-cover claims, “If the book sucks, at least there are gobs of pictures, and they’re not crammed in the middle like all those other actor books.”) This paperback edition includes a one-year-later afterword about the hardcover’s publicity tour. Unfortunately, from 2010 the book itself doesn’t have the extra nine years’ hindsight over Campbell’s career, a decade that saw a typical mixture of B-movie roles going from the critical acclaim of Bubba Ho-Tep to the somewhat less successful Alien Apocalypse. I’m sure that Campbell must have another decade’s worth of stories in him: I’d read a sequel without asking any questions.