(In French, on TV, February 2019) If Congo has any claim to fame, it’s this superb quote from co-star Bruce Campbell: “What if you were offered a chance to appear in a movie based on a Michael Crichton novel? It will be directed by veteran Frank Marshall. Stan Winston will handle the special effects and it will be a big budget Paramount production. Sounds good? Congratulations, you just made Congo.” (There are a few versions of that quote around, but they all end with the same punchline.) The point of the anecdote is to illustrate the vagaries of Hollywood projects between what sounds good on paper and what comes out in the end—and to slam the movie along the way. Of course, your take may not be as harsh: While I found the much-maligned movie quite disappointing indeed, it’s not nearly as bad as some of the critical pile-on would have you believe. I wasn’t a fan of the original novel (which crammed one incident inspired by African clichés per chapter, narrative coherency be damned), but its episodic nature translates quite naturally to the screen, where it becomes one thrill after another until we’ve stopped asking for any kind of believability. The ridiculous pileup of subplots all justifying an expedition in deep Africa makes for an entertaining premise, and that’s well before we end up with a climax in which volcanoes, diamonds, killer apes and laser weapons are all involved. Congo’s bombastic nature ensures that we never take it seriously. The ever-cute Laura Linney stars, along with a few notables such as Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry and the inimitable Bruce Campbell. As long as you keep your expectations in check, this is an old-fashioned adventure film that should satisfy roughly 51% of your cravings, even if there’s quite a lot missing to ensure that the film is fun, that it flows well and that it makes the most out of its elements. As it is, Congo does remain a disappointment: It’s inert more often than it should, can’t quite capitalize on everything at its disposal and none of the cast or crew can’t quite save it. But that’s the risk that you take on every Hollywood movie … no matter how good their pedigree.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Is it still a dumb B-movie if it knows and celebrates that it’s a dumb B-movie? My Name is Bruce offers an easy answer to that question (“YES!”) but doesn’t necessarily dismiss the follow-up question: Are we wasting our lives watching dumb B-movies? Much of the answer that that question, in the case of this film, will hinge on whether you like Bruce Campbell in his full self-aware auto-referential glory. Here, a Bruce Campbell caricature (obviously played by Bruce Campbell, who also directs and co-produces) is asked for help by a small town terrified of a monster it unleashed. But Campbell-the-character is an incorrigible lecherous coward who’s going to have to grow up quickly if he’s to defeat the menace and escape with his life. The formula here couldn’t be more familiar, and even the film’s winking self-awareness doesn’t exactly make it anything but a low-budget dumb B-movie. Campbell does have quite a bit of self-deprecating charm, but it may not be sufficient to convince those in the audience who have previously come to the conclusion that shlock is shlock, no matter how often it acknowledges that it’s shlock. (If it didn’t want to be shlock, then it should feel free to be something else.) My Name is Bruce can be amusing, but it can also be exasperating in the way it recycles most of the clichés in the book, wallows in low-budget production techniques and can’t be bothered to go beyond the most obvious jokes. There’s clearly a financial calculation here (as is; how cheaply can the movie be made and still bring in a profit or intangible fan love for Campbell?) that doesn’t help My Name is Bruce distinguish itself from the very type of movie it’s trying to skewer. Campbell is, bluntly speaking, much better than this. But he has accurately figured out that this is his bread-and-butter, and that fans of those movies are the ones most likely to flock to a movie directed by Campbell. It’s perilously close to a vanity project, but at least Campbell fans will get exactly what they say they want from him.
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.
(On VHS, September 1999) This obviously isn’t for everyone, with its ultra-low budget, shaky acting, primitive special effects, heavy-handed misogynism and over-the-top gore. For usual moviegoers, it oscillates between bore and gross-out. For horror fans, however, this film pretty much ranks up there with the greatest works of the genre. Though it’s not as sophisticated, funny or slick as its two latter sequels, The Evil Dead already exhibits Sam Raimi’s devilishly clever direction, darkly funny atmosphere and plain old fun of the follow-ups. Do yourself a favor: rent all three, invite a bunch of friends and have a grand good time.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2006) What one tends to forget in the shadow of this film’s sequels is that The Evil Dead series started out a pure cheap horror without much in terms of comedy. Neither is Bruce Campbell all that impressive in this first outing. (The familiar “Ash” persona would fully emerge only during the second film.) It, fortunately enough, still works relatively well today, but there isn’t much in there to keep audiences coming back. Coming out of nowhere, it’s still an impressive effort. As a prelude to what’s to come, well, it’s a bit bare-bones. The DVD contains an amusing audio commentary by the producers that sheds some light on the film’s ultra-low-budget origins.
(On VHS, July 1999) Simply put, a blast. A shotgun blast. Effectively mixing dark comedy and liquid gore while making the most out of its small budget, this movie works by sheer audacity. Director Sam Raimi’s devilishly inventive camera angles and non-stop pacing (the movie’s 85 minutes, but packs a wallop) are as frantic as anything you’ve seen elsewhere. Plus, Bruce Campbell is very cool and the special effects are pretty well-handled. Drags a bit by the end. Works simultaneously as a movie, a parody and MST3K fodder. Clever, hip and simply a lot of fun. Rougher than its sequel Army Of Darkness, but well worth the rental.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2006) I’m sure that this film does get old at some point, but watching it every few years is still a treat: The mixture of horror and comedy is one thing, but Sam Raimi’s hyperkinetic camera style is still a blast after twenty years and countless imitators. The film manages to top itself minute after minute, and this despite an introduction that repeats the entire first film in a matter of moments. It also helps that Bruce Campbell truly emerges as an icon right on time at the beginning of the third act. Good gags, appropriate gore and tons of creativity: ah, if more horror movies could be like this… The DVD contains an amusing commentary by the principal crew members, who take the time to reflect on the film shoot in general and how specific scenes were shot.