Hello, welcome to Rental Floss, a new, regular column in which I trawl through the dregs of the Netflix catalogue, probe the miserably rated and attend to the films that cultural consensus has neglected in search for the good in films generally considered the opposite. The films I will be writing about have to meet a certain criteria: they must be a) available on Netflix UK so they're easily accessible to you lovely people, as you are all welcome to join in with me, b) rated 3.0 or lower on Netflix and c) rotten on Rotten Tomatoes with 50% or less.

Critical discourse is often focused on whether a film is merely good or bad - which is understandable considering most people just want to know if a film is worth their time or not - but in doing that we overlook the myriad nuances of every film and ultimately we limit the conversation to black and white terms. Yet that's the least compelling aspect of film discussion compared to how we personally connect with a film and why. And in the midst of such reductive dialogue, many curious and genuinely entertaining films are considered failures and are eventually forgotten.

That's unfortunate because all films have value of some kind, even the legitimately awful ones, because they can often teach us as much about ourselves, our culture and film craft as great films. What we reject is just as fascinating as what we embrace. I envision this as a compassionate adventure through the wilderness of cinematic disaster.

  • Name: Man With The Screaming Brain (2005)
  • Director: Bruce Campbell (!)
  • Running Time: 84 mins
  • Starring: Bruce Campbell, Tamara Gorski, Antoinette Byron, Vladimir Kolev Ted Raimi, Stacy Keach
  • Tagline: "He's losing their minds!"
  • Rating: Rotten Tomatoes - 33% / Netflix - 2.9/5

We begin, as an expository title-card indicates, somewhere in Bulgaria. Yes, Bulgaria. Forget for a moment the beautifully silly title of Man with the Screaming Brain, the film's obvious B-Movie charm and that it marked the feature film directorial debut of The Evil Dead's (1981) Bruce Campbell and his celebrated chin - we'll get to all that later - because the choice of location is by far the most curious aspect of this film.

See, Bulgaria is scarcely seen in western cinema. A number of Hollywood productions have been filmed there, in and around the American owned NU Boyana Film Studios in Sofia - The Black Dahlia (2006), Hitman (2007) and The Expendables 2 (2012) for example - mainly because it's cheap, but those films rarely venture outside into actual Bulgaria. Seldom do we see the streets and the culture and the vibrancy of Bulgaria on film from any sort of perspective - Bulgarian, American, whatever. That thought can be extended to most of Southeastern Europe.

I mean, how many Bulgarian films have you seen? Or Croatian? Or Serbian? How many films are made in those countries per year, local or foreign, and what percentage actually make it into cinemas across the world? Very few. Romanian cinema is currently going through its Renaissance, so the films of Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu etc. tend to get limited distribution in wider markets such as the UK and US, but that's pretty much all we get when it comes Southeastern European cinema. It's disappointing because one of the many reasons I love cinema is that it can show us things we hardly see and give us a window into world's we don't know.

So even though it's an American production, and technically a TV film as it was partially funded and shown by the Sci-Fi Channel (which has since egregiously been rebranded as *shudder* SyFy), I found Man with the Screaming Brain's Bulgarian setting refreshing. The reasoning behind shooting the film there was purely financial - Campbell, amazingly, had this film on the backburner since the 80s and planned to shoot it in LA, but couldn't get it made until he moved the production to somewhere that didn't incur huge costs - but it's admirable that, as both writer and director, Bruce Campbell dares to use the location effectively by working it into the story and even the themes.

Screaming Brain follows William Cole (Campbell), a conventional Ugly American - complete with a luxuriant moustache that can only be described as a work of art - and pharmaceutical tycoon who visits Bulgaria with his wife Jackie (Antoinette Byron) to tie up a deal. Various laboured shenanigans lead to a psychotic gypsy woman, Tatoya (Tamara Gorski), murdering Cole, Jackie and their ass-kicking ex-KGB taxi driver Yegor (Vladimir Kolev), because of reasons. Their bodies are inexplicably taken by mad, but ultimately well-meaning scientists who use tissue from Yegor's brain to repair Cole's, leaving Cole with a split personality and a vendetta against Tatoya. Meanwhile, Jackie's brain is put in a frankly creepy looking robot body. Cue even more shenanigans.

Campbell never shies away from Bulgaria during all those shenanigans (I really like that word). He could have just soaked up the tax-incentives and shot mostly on sets, but a great deal of Man with the Screaming Brain is taken up by location shooting. He fully embraces Bulgaria. There's even a sequence in which Cole - showing off his gloriously over the top post-op scars that make him look like a proto-Next Generation era Klingon - is shown stumbling around the various cultural landmarks of Sofia while inadvertently scaring away the locals.

The rareness of seeing Bulgaria on film gives Screaming Brain an added layer of interest and personality beyond the goofy B-Movie antics. It's what sets the film apart, I suppose. Campbell even uses Bulgaria to add a little bit of subtext about communism and capitalism, as the film is ultimately a comedy of errors about an obnoxious American capitalist with an overt cultural superiority complex who finds himself gradually humiliated in an ex-communist country that he considers to be beneath him, all until he eventually learns that being an unrepentant asshole maybe isn't the best idea.

However, let's not allow that overshadow the fact that Screaming Brain is emphatically and unashamedly a naff B-Movie. I mean, it's directed by Bruce Campbell, how could it be anything else? In that respect, it's completely functional and by-the-books, utilising a number of routine tropes, but ultimately elevated by Campbell's performance, as he is at once a master of physical comedy and brilliant at delivering snark. Screaming Brain is just about silly enough to be considered entertaining - it's overloaded with sumptuously hammy acting, hilariously awful fight scenes and Campbell throwing himself around like a champ - but bizarrely takes far too long to get anywhere with its split-personality premise.

It takes 40 minutes, which is half the running time, for Cole's brain to be molested by pesky scientists, and after that the film is an absolute riot. Campbell is throwing milk over himself, fighting his hand Evil Dead style and riding through Bulgarian streets on a little pink Vespa. It's hilarious and endearing because Campbell's passion for this type of filmmaking is palpable. The preceding 40 minutes or so, however, are oddly ponderous and even flirt with being boring. There are long periods in very little is happening and there's an ominous sense that it's being played straight. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that every single character is a stereotype in one way or another, although the film isn't mean-spirited.

It wouldn't have been so annoying if the film had launched straight into its antics because I can see what Campbell is trying to do, but we just spend too much time with them outside of the brain-screaming for it to work properly. Some moments will raise a smile, like Yegor's amazing high-kick, dancing robots and the fact that one of the scientists is called Ivan Ivanovic Ivanov, but it's short bursts rather than the perpetual motion of the latter half.

That's disappointing in a way, because a film directed, written and starring Bruce Campbell called Man with the Screaming Brain should be relentlessly ridiculous throughout. It's amiable and diverting enough, but only comes close to fulfilling its potential roughly halfway through, and by that point I would fully understand if you zoned out. It's a strange dichotomy, because the film is utterly reliant on Bruce Campbell's charms but also stumbles because of him. He's a cult figure, the people seeking this film out are acutely aware of him and his shtick, they cannot help but have expectations and compare his films.

Perhaps that's why Screaming Brain seems to be a forgotten relic in the Bruce Campbell oeuvre. Compared to the likes of Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) and My Name is Bruce (2007), it's a just bit vanilla - a hodgepodge of well-worn ideas. There is nothing on the level of a Chinese god of the dead, or Elvis and black John F. Kennedy battling a mummy in a retirement home. Maybe Screaming Brain will eventually gather a cult following in a canon of cult films, but it's not really unique enough in its B-Movie machinations for it to entirely stand out. Still, we'll always have Bulgaria.