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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce!!

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

This is a new phase Bottom Shelf column.

I've been doing this for quite a while now and thought it was time for a change. To begin with, having tried both your patience and mine with too many mega-columns (29 movies in one?! What was I thinking?), The Bottom Shelf will now review no more than three discs per column. With any luck, this will mean they'll show up a bit more often but don't quote me on that.

The more important change is down at the bottom. By far the most popular columns I've written for the site have been my Wish List columns, movies and TV shows that should be on disc by now but aren't. Since nothing is more important to me than popularity, I thought I'd make it a regular thing. So from now on, the column will end with Shelf Space, a pick for a movie or TV series that needs to be released or re-released on DVD. If you've got suggestions, let me have 'em. Don't be shy.

And that, as they say, is that. Thanks to all of you who read my overlong mutterings, as they seem to multiply over this site like ragweed. Next time you see a big change to this column, it'll either be because I've quit or because the next generation disc has overtaken the marketplace and DVD Classic is now a niche format. And now, on with the show...


Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce!!

It's hard for me to imagine a world where people don't know who Bruce Campbell is but then, I travel in some pretty unusual circles. Suffice it to say that Master Thespian Bruce Campbell is one of the biggest cult movie stars to emerge in the past twenty-five years. Bursting onto the scene back in 1983 as the idiot-hero Ash in Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, Campbell has become the center of a massive cult of personality thanks to his lantern-jawed good looks, sardonic wit, and talent for physical comedy. A friend of mine described him as the Cary Grant of cult movies and that's not far off the mark.

The trouble is that since Campbell's forte is the B-movie, he's often stuck in projects that don't give him much of a chance to show his stuff. Don't get me wrong. As an actor, Campbell never appears to give less than 110% no matter what. Even in the worst bottom-of-the-barrel junk, he rises above the material and that, to me, is one of the measures of a real actor. If you've got a David Mamet script, it's easy to sound like you know what you're talking about. But if you've got to deliver exposition in something like, say, Mindwarp, you need to have some real chops to pull that off.

The Essential Campbell begins, obviously, with Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy. Many of Campbell's most oft-quoted lines come from the third, Army of Darkness (or, as I prefer to think of it, Bruce Campbell Vs. Army of Darkness). Past that, Campbell's talent can best be seen on the short-lived Fox series, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. Irritatingly, that series hasn't been released on disc yet, so your best shot at converting a non-believer into the Cult of Campbell is through Bubba Ho-Tep, a wild but charming horror-comedy starring Campbell as an aged Elvis battling a mummy in a rest home.

Recently, Campbell's star seems to be on the rise in the mainstream as well. His laugh-out-loud memoir, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, was a surprise bestseller. His follow-up novel, Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way, seems to be doing pretty well for itself, too. And while Campbell could often be glimpsed in cameos and supporting roles in big-budget movies from pals like Raimi and the Coen brothers, now you can find him in things like Disney's Sky High. Riding this new interest in all things Campbell, Anchor Bay has recently released a trio of Bruce's flicks, including his directorial debut. But before we get to that, let's take a quick look at one of the movies that made him a horror icon.


Evil Dead 2: The Book of the Dead 2

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Evil Dead 2: The Book of the Dead 2
1987 (2005) - Renaissance Pictures (Anchor Bay)

I touched briefly on this screamin' new version of ED2 in my interview with Book of the Dead designer Tom Sullivan, so if you already read that, feel free to skip ahead. The upshot is that in a marketplace already overcrowded with Evil Dead DVDs, this new version is well worth picking up (especially if you were smart enough to hold out and not get one until now).

Raimi's original Evil Dead was a low-budget horror shocker that actually succeeded at providing some genuine scares, especially at the time. Not for nothing did Stephen King call it "the most ferociously original horror film" of its year. For the sequel, Raimi and company basically called a do-over on the whole thing.

Evil Dead II (technically, the title is in roman numerals) is essentially a remake of the first one, ditching the creepy stuff and going balls-out into slapstick territory. The first one had elements of this, so it wasn't a difficult stretch to turn the whole thing into a gory comedy. Still, there are all sorts of reasons why the movie shouldn't have worked.


The fact that Evil Dead II did succeed and has endured can be chalked up to three elements. First off, needless to say, is Raimi's immense talent as a filmmaker. It was evident from the very beginning that this guy knew his way around a camera. Evil Dead II just sealed the deal. It proved that Raimi wasn't just designing shots he thought were cool (though they certainly are that). He knew the effect each shot would have on an audience. He knew the difference between cutting a sequence that would scare someone, one that would thrill them, and one that would make them laugh. These are surprisingly subtle distinctions that many filmmakers never learn. It's why so many directors get pigeon-holed into specific genres. Sam Raimi escaped that trap early on.

The second big thing in ED2's favor is the makeup effects work by the team that would soon become KNB, not to mention the stop-motion animation from Tom Sullivan. The effects are silly without being cheesy and once seen, they're never forgotten. Moments like the moonlit dance of Linda's decapitated corpse, the Deadite's eye shooting across the room, and Ash's transformation into Evil Ash remain vivid in your memory no matter how long it's been since you've seen the picture.

Finally, there's the man himself. Bruce Campbell's performances as Ash in these movies made him an icon unique in horror movies. He's the only hero anybody ever remembers from any recent horror flicks. Evil Dead II cemented that status. Ash is a genuinely stupid character who only seems to make things worse. But audiences love him because he's mainly just making things worse for himself. Campbell throws himself into this movie, literally, giving it everything he's got. Without Campbell in the center of all this madness, hurling through trees and lopping off his possessed hand with a chainsaw, the movie just wouldn't work. It would be like a Three Stooges episode with an extra standing in for Moe.

For the right person, Evil Dead II is just about as much fun as movies can be. If you're that kind of person, you need to have a copy in your collection and the Book of the Dead 2 Edition is the way to go. It looks better than ever thanks to a new transfer supervised by Raimi hisownself. Plus, it has all the extras you'd want, including a terrific commentary by Raimi, Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel and make-up effects artist Greg Nicotero and a fun half-hour effects documentary called The Gore the Merrier. Unique to this edition, besides the cool packaging, is Behind-the-Screams, a collection of rare photos with commentary by Tom Sullivan. If you have an earlier ED2 with the other extras, it's probably not worth an upgrade on that basis alone. But if you're a collector who wants the new Book, it's a neat addition that helps take the sting out of buying something based on packaging alone.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A



Man with the Screaming Brain

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Man with the Screaming Brain
2004 (2005) - Sci Fi Pictures (Anchor Bay)

Campbell has always been active behind the scenes, as a producer, writer, and, on TV series like Hercules and Xena, director. Even so, it took about eighteen years for his first feature film as writer/director to come to fruition. When it was finally made, Man with the Screaming Brain was not the theatrical release many had hoped for but instead an original TV-movie made for the Sci Fi Channel. The question is, was it worth the wait?

Campbell stars as American industrialist William Cole. He and his wife (Antoinette Byron) are on a trip to Bulgaria where Cole is wrapping up a tax dodge scheme. His arrival is noticed by deranged scientist Dr. Ivan Ivanov (Stacy Keach) who hopes to interest him in a new method he's developed to join human cells together for organ transplants. But Cole is attacked and killed, along with his driver, an ex-KGB agent, by a local gypsy lonelyhearts killer. Dr. Ivanov sees this as an opportunity to demonstrate his technique first hand and brings Cole back to life, placing half of the Russian's brain inside his skull. The post-transplant Cole makes Campbell look kind of like Basil Fawlty after a frontal lobotomy.


As you can probably surmise, Man with the Screaming Brain is an unrepentently silly movie. The battling-brains scenario gives Campbell ample opportunity for physical comedy. That combined with the setting and mad scientist plotline makes this feel almost like a cross between Steve Martin's The Man with two Brains and All of Me, albeit on a much lower budget. It's the budget that reigns in the fun and makes this feel very much like the TV-movie it is. Campbell does what he can, finding interesting locations to shoot and keeping things moving, but you can sense his creativity is held in check a bit. Ted Raimi has some fun as the hip-hop loving henchman Pavel and Campbell and Keach are both amusing. But you need to have a pretty high tolerance level for their brand of goofy comedy to really enjoy this movie.

Anchor Bay's DVD provides more than enough extras to satisfy the most devout Campbell fan. Bruce and his producer, David M. Goodman, supply a somewhat disappointing commentary with far too much narration of what's happening on screen. Better, but still not perfect, is the 13-minute making-of, Brain Surgeons. There's some good stuff here but I felt like it had been edited so that it was less than entirely candid. Toward the end, Bruce says he has mixed feelings about the project, saying he's glad he finally got the picture made. But then we never do hear what's on the negative side of the equation.

Still, I have to recommend the disc if for no other reason than the featurette, Neurology 101: Evolution of the Screaming Brain. For fourteen minutes, Campbell and Goodman stand in front of a chalkboard and go step by step through their various attempts to make this movie since the 1980s. The disc is practically worth renting for this alone. If you've seen Campbell speak at a convention, you know what to expect. It's a funny and informative segment and I only wish it had been longer. The disc also includes nine minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, a gallery of storyboard art, another gallery of art from the Dark Horse comic book adaptation, a Bruce bio and filmography, and a handful of trailers.

Man with the Screaming Brain isn't a great movie. By most folks' standards, it probably isn't even a very good movie but Bruce Campbell fans will want to check it out, even if merely out of curiosity. It's a bit of a disappointment that Campbell doesn't exactly wow you as a director here but then again, a low-budget TV-movie may not be the best venue to demonstrate one's virtuosity. Still, Campbell has enough built-in good will that I'll check out his next movie.

Film Rating: C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/B+



Alien Apocalypse

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Alien Apocalypse
2005 - Sci Fi Pictures (Anchor Bay)

Shot back-to-back with Screaming Brain, Alien Apocalypse is a real test of anybody's enjoyment of Bruce Campbell's work. In this one, Bruce plays Dr. Ivan Hood, a orthopedist/astronaut who returns to Earth after a 40-year mission. But while he was out, the planet was overrun by giant space termites who enslaved the population, put them all to work in sawmills, and apparently forced all the men to wear really bad wigs and fake beards. The good doctor escapes and goes on a quest to find the exiled President of the United States, hoping to lead a rebellion against the insects.

Written and directed by Josh Becker, another longtime collaborator who also helmed the far superior and much underrated Running Time, Alien Apocalypse is apparently the highest-rated stand-alone original movie in Sci Fi Channel history. Great news until you stop to realize its competition includes such winners as Boa Vs. Python. This is an utterly ridiculous movie that you might (key word: might) enjoy if you don't take it too seriously. And by too seriously I mean, at all seriously. Virtually every supporting actor is dubbed badly, making the ADR work done on 60s spaghetti westerns look seamless in comparison.


The story holds up to no scrutiny whatsoever. I have no idea how the bugs enslaved humanity, since they're so easily defeated in the end. My favorite line comes when a slave can't believe that Campbell actually killed one of the insects. Bruce replies, "Yeah, it's easy. You just need a knife or a rock or something. I used a drill bit."

Whatever you think of the movie, Campbell fans will get their money's worth from this DVD after listening to the commentary by Bruce and Josh Becker. These guys have no illusions about what they've made here and the commentary is very amusing. The disc also includes a few minutes of choice behind-the-scenes video (see Bruce Campbell struggle in vain trying to climb an unscalable hill!), another storyboard gallery, the same bio as on Screaming Brain, and trailers.

Alien Apocalypse is a bad movie but not all bad. Its tongue is firmly in cheek and the effects, a combination of CGI work and puppets, are fairly decent for the budget. If this had been made in the 50s or 60s, it would now be totally forgotten except for a small cult who'd laugh it up watching the DVD from Something Weird Video. If you're that type of movie-lover (and I know some of you are), you'll be glad to see that tradition of cheez-whiz filmmaking continued in Alien Apocalypse.

Film Rating: D+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B+



Shelf Space - Crimewave (1985)

I already mentioned that Campbell's late, lamented TV series The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. is crying out for a DVD release. So let's focus our attention on the one Sam Raimi movie that has yet to be released. Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, Crimewave is not an entirely successful picture and that's putting it kindly. It's a bit of a mess, really, but it's an entertaining mess and I'd love to see it on disc. The picture's biggest problem is leading man Reed Birney, an actor with almost no screen presence. But I still enjoy the movie, thanks to the performances of Brion James and Paul L. Smith as a pair of zany exterminators and our man Bruce Campbell as the Heel. The movie's worth watching just for the moment when Bruce gets hit on the head with a fire escape. Flawed, frenetic and often very funny, Crimewave needs to be paroled to DVD.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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