While there are dozens of iconic horror movie monsters, how many iconic horror movie heroes can you name off the top of your head? Sure, Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Langenkamp played important and even beloved roles, but it is Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger that bring people to those franchises. For the Evil Dead series, the main attraction ultimately isn’t the Deadite hordes, but the wise-cracking, chainsaw wielding Ashley J. Williams, brought to life by the wonderful Bruce Campbell. No doubt, the drastic shift toward over-the-top comedy puts the Evil Dead series in a much different space than most horror mega-franchises, but few [if any] have capitalized on making the hero more interesting than the monster. And few actors have found the cultural cache because of it.
Bruce Campbell has 116 acting credits, a significant amount by any standard, though most in insignificant roles or in insignificant productions. Fortunately for him, being the childhood friend of Sam Raimi helped [though certainly Campbell deserves some of the credit that turned his filmmaking friend into one of Hollywood’s biggest directors], and the two collaborated on short films and school projects up until their breakout film The Evil Dead. Only 23 years old at the time of the film’s release [21 during filmmaking], Campbell was a fresh-faced and unassuming kid that morphs into a stone cold badass before your eyes. Watching the opening scenes of The Evil Dead, there is no way to know just how charismatic and physically gifted the actor would become.
The performer we’d see six years later in the beloved sequel/re-do Evil Dead II was an absolute revelation. Campbell had matured incredibly, no longer the slightly nervous-looking young man, but a bonafide action star and comedian who quite literally carries the film for a substantial runtime. Perhaps most amazingly, though he had the looks to be a Hollywood leading man, his performance showed a complete lack [even spite of] ego. That dynamic shifted again for Army of Darkness, which shifted from horror to fantasy while making the character more of an extreme outlier [by this point, there is absolutely no semblance of the character from the franchise starter].
Between his Evil Dead performances, few other projects were able to capitalize on his strange style in leading roles---though he was never forgotten by his oldest friend. Sadly, Raimi has never able to cast Campbell in any major role [there’s still time, crossing my fingers], but the director knows how to use his talents better than anyone, leading to some of the most memorable characters in the Spider-Man series and Oz the Great and Powerful. Otherwise, his list of random roles is impressively random: voice-work in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Cars 2, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, uncredited cameos in three Coen Brothers’ films, a seven-episode run on sitcom Ellen, and credits as both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
After a long road in film and television, Bruce Campbell’s career has come full circle with the highly acclaimed and popular Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead, bringing his iconic character into a new generation. This new iteration once again has changed along with the talents of its performer---Campbell’s age and physicality give an interesting twist to the once-virile man, but he is no less badass. Through the spectrum of the breakout hit we are covering this week all the way through his revitalization with that character, there are many other wonderful and weird performances we need to talk about.
Maniac Cop 
Campbell’s follow-up to Evil Dead II was William Lustig’s quintessential 80’s slasher Maniac Cop. He plays Jack Forrest, straight-laced cop with personal troubles, who is framed for a string of brutal killings perpetrated by a uniformed New York officer. In essence, think Jason Voorhees, but as a cop looking for revenge on basically everyone instead of just sex-crazed campers. Campbell doesn’t get to show off his screwball instincts so wonderfully captured the year before, but he is an adequate fresh-faced leading man type here [boy, was he handsome]. Maniac Cop certainly could have benefited from Campbell’s ability to be a little off-kilter, but it is never a mystery despite the wrong-man subplot. It really is a bit of a shame the character was the cookie-cutter hero that this genre of film so often had---it would have even been more interesting if he was the wordless, rarely seen killer. If you go to Maniac Cop only because you’re a Bruce Campbell superfan, you might be disappointed, but there is more than enough in this strangely relevant killer cop film to be worth your while. He returned to the role two years later in Lustig’s sequel.
Waxwork II: Lost in Time 
From what I can tell, Waxwork II has little in common with its predecessor, which seems like a standard survive-the-night thriller. The film is practically an anthology of different horror ripoffs and homages, with the lead couple through the looking glass, travelling through time and space. They must live through low rent versions of Frankenstein, Alien, Dawn of the Dead, Nosferatu, and more. The section that includes Bruce Campbell is the best [and not only because of him], a Haunting-like haunted house story shot in black and white and with much of the classic film's atmospheric style. Campbell plays a paranormal investigator who is working with the couple to get definitive proof of a ghost. It doesn't end up so well for him, though Waxwork II keeps up a silly energy that works right in the actors wheelhouse. He unfortunately doesn't have much screentime, but his presence is enjoyable in a truly unique film.
Bubba Ho-Tep 
Playing an elderly Elvis Presley trapped inside of a nursing home under the name of his most famous impersonator sounds ripe for an actor gunning for an Oscar. Coming from the mind of horror icon Don Coscarelli, however, calls for a much different type of performer and Bruce Campbell is that type of performer. You could probably say that this is “inspired casting,” but he certainly has the look and the attitude [and we’ve already had to hail to the king, baby]---and Campbell plays the hell out of the role. He’s able to shift from wry musings on aging’s effects on the human body to a slapstick brawl with an animatronic beetle with ease. Like in The Evil Dead, he transforms from unassuming [his roommate’s hot young daughter cannot see him as a sexual being] to a virile, wise-cracking hero. As the film dives headlong into the killer mummy plot, sillier and sillier, Campbell is more at home. Bubba Ho-Tep is a fun mash-up that absolutely takes advantage of its star’s persona and lets his talents inspire the tone and movement of the film. The decade between Army of Darkness and Bubba Ho-Tep was not an unsuccessful one for Campbell, but was mostly spent on television with supporting roles on Ellen, Xena and Hercules. Bubba Ho-Tep marked a much needed starring return that kept his personality alive.
Man with the Screaming Brain 
In his feature directorial debut, Campbell plays a shrewd American businessman who gets his brain spliced with a Russian cab driver while on a trip in Bulgaria. I’ll be honest though it may be sacrilegious, Man with the Screaming Brain doesn't do much for me. Campbell’s performance isn’t particularly bad [though, strangely, he doesn’t give himself much to do], but the film’s script has so many problems. This is unquestionably the only project of Campbell’s I’ve seen where I could say I was bored. The first half of Man with the Screaming Brain is way too much set-up for too little pay-off, introducing us to bland characters and a directionless plot. Despite its interest in mad scientist movies from the 50s and 60s, this is essentially a comedy that mistakes madcap energy for actual humor. It is unfortunate that the legend’s first foray behind the camera is such a muddled mess, but it has found a following among the most dedicated Campbell followers.
The Woods 
The Woods is a prime example of a beloved horror director giving a hat tip to Campbell’s legacy by casting him in a small but important role. The film is a very entertaining supernatural thriller set in a secluded New England boarding school for young girls---where the authority may or may not be witches. Campbell plays the father of star Agnes Bruckner, and he has the straight-laced look of the 1950s period. Given the film’s secluded location, Campbell only appears near the beginning and end of The Woods. The film’s mysterious tone [nor his amount of screen time] doesn’t afford for any silly business, but he does get a nice hero moment toward the end of the film once he realizes just what is going on around him. Aside from Campbell, veteran actor Patricia Clarkson shines as the school’s headmistress---her steely expression plays perfectly in the role. If you haven’t seen any of Lucky McKee’s work, The Woods is a good place to start. It hits his female-driven themes and is highly enjoyable while more approachable than the films that have given him his indie cult status. Fans of Bruce Campbell will get their fill, too.
My Name Is Bruce 
Up until Ash vs. Evil Dead there always seemed to be rumors [or perhaps just fan hopes and dreams] floating around Bruce Campbell making a return to his most iconic role. That was sort of fulfilled with 2007 indie My Name Is Bruce, a farce specifically catered to [and only to] the most hardcore Bruce Campbell fanatics. Directed by the man himself, Campbell plays a heightened version of his persona---a down-and-out B-movie actor, forgotten by all but a few as he wades through terrible jobs and alcoholism. But when the citizens of a small town unleashes an ancient evil, he is recruited to be a real-life savior. Mistaking the situation for a The Game-style birthday adventure, Bruce doesn’t understand the actual threat at hand. The film directs just every washed up, out-of-shape, cowardly, generally terrible human being jokes you could loft at the star. As with even his highest profile work, Campbell shows absolutely no hesitation to poke fun at himself, and that’s the main appeal here. Overall, My Name Is Bruce is a crude but charming film, though now a wonderful precursor to his most recent work on television which has pushed the flip in his once-virile persona to a new level.