Hail to the Chin!
In the kingdom of cult icons, few figures are as passionately adored as Bruce Campbell. The King of the B’s has been gracing our screens for decades, remaining loyal to his roots in low-budget genre fare whilst occasionally rearing his head in network TV shows and mainstream movies for good measure. During his prime, he had all the tools to be an A-list leading man, but Hollywood failed to capitalize on his talents and, as a result, the Chin never received the break he deserved. Their loss…
But who can complain about the career Campbell does have? He’s proven that you can have a successful career operating within the fringes and staying true to the underground. As such, his oeuvre contains an eclectic mix of treats that feel like well-kept secrets just begging to be rediscovered.
This list focuses on underappreciated movies and shows where Campbell was the lead or had the most major supporting role. While I’d love to include Evil Dead, Spider-Man, The Hudsucker Proxy, Waxwork II: Lost in Time, Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Burn Notice, and many more, they’re either too obvious or feature Bruce in a role where he isn’t the main focus. This is all about highlighting his lesser known contributions to film and television where he’s soared.
Now, keep reading as we celebrate the career of one of the greatest human beings to ever walk this earth.
Assault On Dome 4 (1996)
In an ideal world, our favorite actors would have the freedom to pick quality roles and reap the rewards at all times. Sometimes, though, they agree to star in any old trash for the sole purpose of a pay check because they have bills to pay just like the rest of us. That said, whenever Campbell agrees to lend his talents to dreck for the money, he’s able to turn some lumps of coal into shining diamonds. Assault On Dome 4 is a diamond in the rough of Sci-Fi Channel originals.
In this entertaining actioner, he plays an intergalactic terrorist who seizes a scientific outpost in space so he can blackmail the US government into giving him his own planet. He wants to rule as a dictator, and he threatens to wipe out humanity if he doesn’t get his way. Unfortunately for the ambitious criminal, however, there’s a hero hidden in the space station who isn’t prepared to let the bad guys win. The movie is essentially Die Hard set in space, and while it lacks the thrills and qualities of John McTiernan’s masterpiece, it’s still a fun slice of bargain bin schlock.
This wasn’t the only time Campbell was cast as the main antagonist in a cheap Die Hard knockoff either. In Icebreaker he plays a bald terrorist who takes over a ski-resort and it’s up to a heroic Sean Astin to save the day. You read that correctly.
It’s quite fitting that this movie is about cannibalism, because this is what some people would call “a tasty treat.” Of course, if your idea of a tasty treat is couscous or something healthy, maybe Mindwarp isn’t for you. But if you appreciate something cheap and greasy from time to time, you might find this little sci-fi horror movie quite fulfilling.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where humans spend their days wired up to virtual reality machines. The real world is a polluted wasteland you see, and the few people who still reside there are flesh-eating mutants. So when a woman is exiled back to reality for raging against the machine, she finds herself in quite the dangerous predicament which may or may not involve a depraved madman with incestuous desires.
Campbell plays a drifter who spends his days evading the cannibal cretins, but it’s only a matter of time before he and the woman are captured by the hungry deviants and taken to their underground lair where their master (played by Phantasm‘s Angus Scrimm no less) reigns supreme. And that’s where the demented fun truly begins, resulting in a big reveal that’s even wackier than cannibalism and virtual reality.
My Name Is Bruce (2005)
One of the reasons why The Chin’s fans adore him so much is because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. We love his body of work, sure, but we love the man even more. My Name Is Bruce — which he wrote and directed as well — could only come from the imagination of someone who is more than willing to poke fun at themselves for other people’s amusement.
In this one, Campbell plays a washed-up, down-and-out version of himself. He’s a bit of a sleaze and a dick who spends his days working on B-movie schlock and his nights drinking alcohol from his dog’s water dish while pining for his ex-wife. His problems are then worsened when he gets kidnapped by an obsessive fan who believes that the actor is a real monster hunter who can save his town from the ancient Chinese demon that’s been killing the residents. We’ve all been there.
As far as self-parody goes, movies don’t get any funnier — or weirder — than My Name Is Bruce. Sometimes I wish Campbell got more appreciation for his serious roles as well, but wacky performances like this will be the ones he’s always remembered for. And that’s fine.
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)
In the grand scheme of cinema history, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is an all but forgotten blip on the radar that’s only appreciated by Campbell fanatics and aficionados of obscure genre films. The Chin’s filmography is littered with gems of a similar standing and reputation, but few are as charming as this comedic neo-western about vampires who wear sunscreen to stop them from burning to death during daylight hours.
Here, Bruce plays a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing who finds himself caught in the middle of a vampire civil war. There are two types of vampires here — peaceful ones and evil suckers. The former just want to live in their isolated desert town and drink artificial blood. The others, meanwhile, believe that bloodsuckers should rule the world and feast on humanity. These two vastly different ideologies naturally causes each side to clash with each other. Van Helsing wants to kill all of them regardless.
In addition to our dude, Sundown boasts a cast of cult-favorites which includes David Carradine and M. Emmet Walsh. Everyone involved is aware of the type of movie this is and the camp factor is strong, but seeing this group of heavyweight performers having fun is a joy to watch. This is the type of vampire yarn that sinks its teeth into your neck and infects your bloodstream with pure, unadulterated happiness.
From Evil Dead to Oz the Great and the Powerful, wherever Sam Raimi goes Bruce is never far behind. The lifelong friends have been collaborating since the earliest days of their careers and, together, they’ve created some magic. Crimewave, on the other hand, isn’t considered one of their finest hours, and that’s a shame because it’s a wild experience that everyone should try at least once.
In this one (which Raimi directed and co-wrote with the Coen Brothers), a wrongly-accused death row inmate recalls the murderous events involving two hitmen which lead to his present day situation. Bruce plays the sleazy villain Renaldo the Heel (he was originally supposed to play the lead role but the studio interfered) and he steals the show with his sinister charms and snappy dialogue. Evil has rarely been this suave.
Crimewave is an incoherent mess at times, but it’s an ambitious mess that blends multiple genres and incorporates influences from all over the place — from slapstick comedy, Looney Tunes cartoons, schlock horror, film noir, and more. The tone is very similar to Raimi and the Coen’s other collaboration, The Huducker Proxy, albeit more unrestrained, unfocused, and insane.
Running Time (1997)
In this suspenseful little crime drama, Campbell plays an ex-con who gets released from prison only to fall back into his old habits. He’s been planning a big heist for a while, but with his newfound freedom he realizes that maybe he should focus his energies on the woman he’s in love with as opposed to committing robberies and risking it all. Throw in the fact that his partner-in-crime is an incompetent fool and it doesn’t take long until their plan to commit the perfect heist goes awry.
When making Running Time, director Josh Becker was influenced by classic film noir crime sagas. In addition to the black and white appearance, the film presents the illusion of being shot in one continuous take that was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. The best part, however, is that the character Bruce plays allows for him to showcase his “serious” acting chops in what is arguably the most underrated performance of his entire career thus far.
Maniac Cop (1988)
This is what happens when you combine the directorial prowess of New York City grime auteur Bill Lustig, a script written by the untouchable Larry Cohen, and a powerhouse cast which includes Campbell, Tom Atkins, Robert Z’Dar, and Richard Roundtree. Maniac Cop was never going to suck — in fact, it’s one of the best slasher movies to emerge from the genre’s golden age.
Part police procedural, part conspiracy thriller, part slasher romp, Maniac Cop sees Campbell play a wrongfully-accused cop who’s out to clear his name when a mysterious officer starts killing innocent people. However, the investigation leads to him discovering some dark secrets about the police department that they want to stay buried.
Unlike the majority slasher films, this isn’t all about racking up the highest body count. Like most stories that come from the mind of Larry Cohen, this is a critique of society and the topic being explored in this case is police corruption. Maniac Cop also spawned two sequels, and the series’ second installment just so happens to be one of the most entertaining movies in existence and is easily the best action-horror hybrid out there. Campbell has a small part in that one, too.
Jack of All Trades (2000)
After a 90’s run that mainly consisted of guest appearances in TV shows, cameos in some Hollywood productions, and the occasional starring role in low-budget movies, Campbell kicked off the new millennium with a short-lived TV series which put him front and center as a swashbuckling spy tasked with thwarting Napoleon’s dastardly plans. Unfortunately the show wasn’t the big break he deserved as it was canned after two seasons, but it was wonderful while it lasted.
Jack of All Trades is very over-the-top and goofy as hell. Campbell’s character is idiotic but he comes through when it matters, which makes for the kind of entertaining buffoonery the actor is renowned for. The show features various historical figures and ignores little things like historical accuracy in favour of making jokes at their expense, but if you want accuracy go watch a Netflix documentary or something. This show is all about the thrill of adventure and the joy of laughter.
Admittedly, Jack of All Trades is not for everyone as it’s downright silly and very much an acquired taste. That being said, good luck finding a show with a catchier opening credits theme song.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Imagine Elvis was still alive and he was hanging out in a retirement home with JFK. Also imagine that JFK’s skin had been dyed black as part of some government conspiracy. Now imagine that the retirement home they were living in was haunted by an ancient Egyptian mummy that likes to dress up as a cowboy and suck out people’s souls via their buttholes. Now quit imagining all of this and go watch Bubba Ho-Tep so you can witness all of this madness taking place.
Based on Joe Lansdale’s excellent story of the same name and directed by the underrated genre maverick Don Coscarelli, Bubba Ho-Tep is a work of remarkable genius that deserves to be hailed and worshipped as if it were Elvis himself. I’m sure even the King would approve of Campbell’s impersonation, which is both hilariously uncanny and moving. The character is burdened with the sorrow and regrets that comes with growing old and realizing that your mortality is limited, and Campbell delivers the comedic and sentimental beats with aplomb.
For more Bubba Ho-tep love, check out this review by our own resident Elvis impersonator, Rob “Hound Dog” Hunter.
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-1994)
Most Campbell fans consider The Evil Dead or Bubba Ho-Tep to be his finest work. I don’t necessarily disagree with those opinions as I’ve held them myself at some point in my tenure as a fan of the world’s coolest actor. For me, though, his days as an Old West gunslinger just narrowly top his exploits as a chainsaw-wielding demon slayer and the king of rock ‘n roll.
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. follows a bounty hunter who gets hired to put a stop to the gang who killed his father. Each episode centers around a different scenario that arises in the wild frontier, but Brisco’s quest for justice is the motivation that keeps the series moving forward. On paper, that sounds like a simple western and in many ways the show adheres to the traditional hallmarks of cowboy tales. But with episodes featuring orbs that grant superpowers, time-travel, motorcycle gangs, ninja assassins, and pirates, the show is its own bizarre pulpy entity.
Campbell’s performance here as a heroic Everyman is as good as Harrison Ford’s in Indiana Jones, and the show embraces the tone of those movies (it’s worth noting that Jeffrey Boam, who co-wrote The Last Crusade, co-created this as well). The 27 episodes make for one of the greatest adventures ever told, and it’s one you’ll want to relive time and time again.
Honorable Mentions: Terminal Invasion, Moontrap, Alien Apocalypse, Lunatics: A Love Story