Actors may enjoy fame, but they also face public ridicule when they cannot live up to their on-screen personas. Subjective notions of success and failure are shoved in the faces of people whose shelf life is about as long as cottage cheese on a July afternoon. — Bruce Campbell, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor
Bruce Campbell is a funny guy.
This, of course, isn't news to his legions of fans. If any actor has managed to turn his on-screen persona into a cottage industry, it's B-movie cult icon Campbell, who achieved said cult status in Sam Raimi's legendary Evil Dead movies. From his iconic role as Ash, Campbell went on to star in a number of other cheesy-but-fun cult flicks and more recently distinguished himself in the well-received Bubba Ho-Tep. Even his television roles (most notably in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Xena: Warrior Princess, and Hercules) have tended to find him swimming out of the mainstream. If there was ever a guy whose career might lend itself to caricature, it's certainly Campbell.
But instead of turning into his generation's Bela Lugosi, Campbell has turned his onscreen persona and his body of work into a sort of inside joke for his fans and takes pride in churning out work that so many people find entertaining in spite of — or perhaps because of — its lack of serious intent. As he points out in his book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, there's no shame in working hard and figuring out how to make a decent living in a profession that regularly chews people up and spits them out before they even get a foot in the door. It's this complete lack of pretension that makes Campbell so likable and so enduring.
Campbell is currently touring the US with his latest venture, another cheesy-but-fun movie called My Name Is Bruce, in which he is both star and director (the script is by Mark Verheiden, who has penned episodes of Smallville and Battlestar Galactica). Early in the film's life cycle, it was speculated that it would be a straight-to-DVD release. Then last year fans learned that the special effects were being done on a level that would render the movie suitable for the big screen and that a theatrical release would indeed happen this fall. And toward the end of October, Campbell took the show on the road, booking dates in theaters across the country where the film would be screened, followed by a Q&A with the director. The screenings are selling out quickly, so I was lucky to get tickets about a week before he came to town here in New Haven, Connecticut.
As for the movie itself, it's 86 minutes of pretty much what you'd expect. Opening with a horror movie cliche — four unwary teens looking to hook up in a dark, spooky cemetery — My Name Is Bruce is not a film for general audiences. Filled with endless nods to the Evil Dead movies and other Campbell flicks and some signature Campbell/Raimi tropes like Three Stooges references and a healthy dose of slapstick comedy, this movie is far too self-referential and "inside baseball" to appeal to the casual movie-goer, who is likely to feel left out in the cold. Instead it plays like an homage of sorts to Campbell's legions of fans who are clearly the targeted demographic here.
Loosely, the story is about a very down-on-his-luck B-movie actor named Bruce Campbell. This Bruce is a simulacrum of his namesake; he lives in a decrepit trailer with a dog that likes to booze, drunk-dials his ex-wife in the middle of the night, and acts in movies that make most B-movies look like Oscar material. He is kidnapped by a teenage fan (the sole survivor of the events that transpire in the opening scene) who mistakes the real-life Campbell for his onscreen persona and drags him back to the rural town of Gold Lick to beat the evil unleashed in that dark, spooky cemetery — the ghost of a Chinese warrior named Guan-Di. Guan-Di is out to avenge the souls of the Chinese laborers who were killed in a mining accident years before. He's also the protector of bean curd. Hilarity ensues.
Along the way, there are enough inside jokes for the ardent fan to trip over (I'm sure the film warrants repeated viewings on that basis alone), and some ethnic humor that would surely be offensive if anyone bothered to take it seriously. Ted Raimi is on hand in more than one role, and Ellen Sandweiss, who was in the first Evil Dead movie, makes an appearance as Bruce's ex-wife. We discovered during the Q&A that the projectionist had switched a couple of reels; it says much about the movie's plot that most of the audience failed to notice and had a good time anyway.
As the credits rolled at the end of the movie, an impatient murmur rustled through the audience as the music soundtrack (which is actually kind of fun) petered out about halfway through. "Ah, you don't need music anyway," boomed a voice at the back of the theater, and The Man himself came striding down the aisle toward the front of the theater to a round of enthusiastic applause.
Without the cheesy sideburns and loud Hawaiian shirts he sports in the film, Campbell in person is even more handsome than his on-screen counterpart. Wearing glasses, a dark blazer, and a collared shirt, he could have passed for a professorial presence among the crowd of Yalies. The audience, for its part, skewed toward young men clad in their best geek attire. There were more than a few Evil Dead t-shirts in the crowd, and there were at least three or four guys who could have played Comic Book Guy in a live action version of The Simpsons. The switched film reels allowed Campbell to get off a humorous dig at the crowd — apparently only one person in the crowd mentioned the mistake to the projectionist. "He must go to Harvard," cracked Bruce, referring to one of the Ivy League's more intense rivalries.
The audience was full of questions, and Campbell was happy to oblige. He is funny and charming and clearly enjoys the interaction with fans — so much so that he obliged one young woman in the audience by crank-calling her parents right on the spot, much to the delight of the entire audience. The questions ranged from the sublimely silly ("In a fight between Ash, Jason, and Freddy, who would win?") to the slightly serious, as when two young men asked questions about breaking into the film business. It was the career-oriented ones that Campbell took most seriously, telling both questioners that whatever they wanted to be doing, they should also become involved in production, in order to keep some creative control over their work.
Fans of course wanted to know about the prospects for a fourth Evil Dead movie. Campbell allowed that while he'd love to do one, Sam Raimi is committed to doing two more Spider-Man films at this point, so the real question is when they would find the time. He also talked about the fun he's having currently co-starring in TV's Burn Notice on USA Network. In typical self-deprecating style, he said that when he takes a secondary role in a show it tends to stay on for more than one season (referring indirectly to The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. which had a season-long run in 1993-1994).
Campbell will be on the road with My Name Is Bruce from now through most of December. If you're a fan, check the schedule and try to get tickets. This is a movie that begs to be seen in a crowded theater with kindred spirits, and Mr. Campbell in the flesh is more than worth the price of admission. If you can't manage that, My Name Is Bruce is scheduled for a DVD release on February 10, 2009, in which case you should get some snacks, put some beer in the fridge, and invite a few friends over.