Generally speaking, horror geeks aren’t known for being huge bookworms. After all, it’s hard to keep up with The Paris Review when you’re busy Googling stage blood recipes and jacking off to archival copies of Heavy Metal magazine. That’s the perception, anyway—the horror movie nerd as unfuckable, illiterate moron, haunting the sub-basement and getting in Reddit arguments about the relative ambulatory speed of different zombie varietals. But horror geeks aren’t dumb or incurious. They’re just drawn to their passions. And what better book to capture gorehounds’ attention than the irreverent memoirs cult cinema’s most likeable everyman, “Groovy” Bruce Campbell?
Enter the Evil Dead star’s 2002 autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor—a book which, for Necronomicon-obsessed weirdoes such as myself, remains a foundational “inside showbiz” text, right up there with Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture and Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies.
Looking back, it’s clear Chins came out at the precise right moment in pop culture history. Those of us old enough to recall some semblance of adult life in 2002 will recall that the internet, while technically extant in usable consumer form since the mid-1990s, wasn’t at all the communications or community-building tool it soon would be. Twitter was five years away, search engines were nascent, and fan pages [when they actually existed] were difficult to find, amateurish, and egregiously slapdash in the information they provided—especially for supposedly disreputable trash like The Evil Dead, whose production history seemed to exist somewhere in the realm between myth and folklore.
Importantly, 2002 was also the last possible moment before geek culture finally broke into the mainstream. At the time it seemed unthinkable that The Evil Dead would ever be known to anyone other than a handful of far-flung superfans. But in just a few short years a baseline awareness of The Evil Dead—and, by extension, Bruce Campbell—would be all but taken for granted; not because Bruce Campbell necessarily moved into the mainstream, but because the mainstream moved closer to him. And while the mainstreaming of geek culture has [I’d argue] been a good thing for the world in general, it’s hard to deny there’s a certain mysterious “cool factor” to being truly underground, as Dead and Campbell once were [and are no longer]. Chins appeared at the last possible moment before the polymer bladder filled with this slippery cool factor finally popped, exploding its contents across the derelict cabin floor of post-Millennial pop culture.
In truth, I didn’t get a chance reread the entirety of Chins before sitting down to write this review. But in reading up to roughly the halfway mark, it was eerie how completely revisiting the book transported me back to my life as a poor film student at the University of Utah circa ’02; specifically, to the dank reception area of SLUG Magazine, Salt Lake City’s foremost punk ‘zine, where I was interviewing to be a video intern. Waiting to chat with the SLUG brass, I picked Chins up off the coffee table—the first time I’d seen an actual physical copy of the book in the wild. I didn’t get the internship, but I immediately ran out and bought a copy of Chins for myself. Twenty-four hours later I had read the whole thing.
Beginning with an irreverent intro penned by Sam and Ivan Raimi in which the brothers attempt to squeeze the publisher for more cash in exchange for opining about their old friend Bruce, and continuing throughout the book’s subsequent 368 pages, Chins’ chief appeal is its humor, honesty, and admirably wry deconstruction of life in the Hollywood trenches. Campbell comes off as a remarkably self-aware individual—a trait that undoubtedly informs the actor’s winking performance style, occasionally to his career detriment.
Throughout Chins, the Detroit-born Campbell exhibits a steadfast sense of reliable Midwestern practicality, tinged with an endearingly cornball sense of humor. It’s a sense of humor that seems to have inoculated Campbell against some of the crueler whims of the entertainment industry—but which has also limited his range as a performer. People love Bruce Campbell, but even his most ardent fans wouldn’t hold him up as an amazing thespian. Even longtime friend and collaborator Sam Raimi wouldn’t give him a guest star role on his mid-‘90s TV series American Gothic until Campbell convinced the future Spider-Man filmmaker he wouldn’t just smirk his way through the episode like an asshole.
But Campbell’s passion for acting is completely earnest, even if his appraisal of his own career often amounts to the prose equivalent of the shrugging head-tilt emoji. He takes particular pride in his episodic TV work [including a memorable turn on The X-Files] and in indies such as Josh Becker’s 1997 real-time crime caper Running Time [which is really great]. Less gloriously recalled are misfires such as Campbell’s quickly-dispatched role in 1995’s killer gorilla flop Congo, and the frustrating experience of playing fifth banana to Tom Arnold in 1997’s dire McHale’s Navy reboot. But regardless of the role or project, Campbell is rarely at a loss for a quality showbiz anecdote. It helps that each chapter is liberally festooned with lots of funny pictures and captions.
If you’re any sort of film geek, If Chins Could Kill is a must-own. Pro tip: just like an old VHS copy of Army of Darkness, the book is best consumed via degraded physical media. The more creased, faded, stained, and sun-damaged its wretched yellow pages, the better. So shop smart. Shop S-Mart. You got that?