I bought the “2 times the Bruce” Man with the Screaming Brain/Alien Apocalypse DVD and finally sat down and watched both. I’m not going to provide a review of them. I’m going to do a comparison. Because it is remarkable that despite the films being mostly identical, one works brilliantly and the other is almost unwatchable.
Both films were shot in Bulgaria for the Sci-Fi Channel. They are both, well, Bruce Campbell films. The screenplays are both sloppy. The action is at best silly if not just bad. And otherwise, they are competently executed television movies. In fact, I thought the camera work was pretty good and the lighting often excellent. And the editor of both, Shawn Paper, is a real pro who makes both films work better than they ought to. So why is Man with the Screaming Brain such a joy and Alien Apocalypse such a tiresome bore?
As longtime readers know, I have my preferences, but ultimately my interest is in whether a film works on its own terms. And Alien Apocalypse does not. It tries. It has its moments, although none come quickly to mind. The biggest problem is that the script (by writer-director Josh Becker) doesn’t even try to be clever or wacky or whatever that is that makes a Bruce Campbell film a Bruce Campbell film. It seems to just assume everyone will “get” it because he’s doing his thing.
The plot is so predictable that it actually tricked me once. There was a scene late in the film that implied that the reformed bad guy had turned. But for people who watch a lot of movies, well, it’s an obvious reversal — the time when the questionable guy saves the hero from someone you would have never suspected. But no. It turns out the bad guy does exactly what the most naive film-goer would think. In addition, the dialog is just awful.
Glasshouses and All
Interestingly, I heard just a couple of minutes of the commentary for the film. And all I heard was Becker complaining that the stunt men in Bulgaria really weren’t that good. That’s certainly true; but they were far more competent than he was as the writer of this film.
One technical aspect of Alien Apocalypse that was bothersome was the unbelievable amount of looping and off camera audio. It’s very much like watching a spaghetti western. But I’ll concede that I would have found this charming if the script hadn’t been so terrible.
Man with the Screaming Brain
Maybe it isn’t right to compare Alien Apocalypse to Man with the Screaming Brain. The former film did, apparently, have only half the budget. And it had to pay for a fair amount of special effects — both digital and practical. But the problem with the film is not its look. What makes Man with the Screaming Brain work is that it is a soup of lunacy.
Co-written and directed by Campbell himself, Man With the Screaming Brain revels in its senselessness. If you don’t like this sequence, you might like the next. It has the feel of a farce. Ted Raimi spends most of the film drinking Red Bull, waiting around to be in the right place to drag yet another dead body back to the lab. His character is tasked with finding the others, but he’s not much interested. When one character gets away on a bus, he doesn’t think to get in his van and follow it.
More Than Just Silly
Most of the film is like that. Yet it has momentum. And it is all setting up pieces of the plot for a denouement that is quite satisfying. What’s more, as Man with the Screaming Brain moves along, we learn more about the principle characters. They become more human, even as two dead people are combined into a single brain, and the female lead gets placed into a robot — all gloriously indifferent to the first word in “science fiction.”
(Note: one of the funniest conventions in science fiction films of the 1950s was to put in some kind of plausible-sounding scientific explanation. For example, there was some reason that Glenn’s heart is not growing at the same rate as the rest of his body in The Amazing Colossal Man. Like anyone cares! I mean: let’s have more scenes in the circus tent!)
One Works, One Doesn’t
I think that ultimately, Man with the Screaming Brain works because Campbell (and co-writer David Goodman) didn’t have that much confidence in Bruce Campbell the actor. And so they give him a bunch of things to do — like pour milk all over his head because he claims his brain is on fire. It’s actually because, well, it’s totally insane. And if you don’t like that scene, some different insanity is 30 seconds away.
Alien Apocalypse just gives us Bruce going up the mountain and Bruce coming down the mountain. He gives a couple of over-the-top speeches along the way. There is side material, but it is banal: the slaves act like slaves; then they see Campbell as a demigod. You can skimp on just about anything in a movie. But if you don’t start with a good script (or just one with a lot of good material), you’re lost.
But you should see Alien Apocalypse, because it is parodied in My Name Is Bruce.
 It shouldn’t amaze me, but it still does, when people selling movies seem to care not in the least about those movies. At Amazon, under “special features” it states, “None.” For a Bruce Campbell collection, that’s kind of important, given his fan base. Special features are greatly valued by freaks like me. Well, both these DVDs are loaded with extras. Maybe it isn’t as good as the extras on My Name Is Bruce, but it’s still impressive. “None.” Just brilliant.