To B or not to B. That is not the question for Bruce Campbell, a low-budget movie idol who's found his culty comfort zone. In town recently for a raucous fan-meeting appearance at Evil Dead: The Musical, a campy hit production in its final two weeks at the Diesel Playhouse, the American actor spoke about his relative fame, Hollywood blockbusters and the unyielding Canadian taste for schlock.
Evil Dead: The Musical, a made-in-Canada horror comedy, bases itself on Sam Raimi's Evil Dead film trilogy (1981-93). It was in those spoofy B-movies that Campbell, as a chainsaw-wielding, catch-phrase spouting hero, found an infamy that lasts to this day.
At a pair of Q&A sessions attended by a rowdy full house of devotees, the personable actor fielded the crowd's oddball queries with aplomb and mock disdain, often dousing hapless askers with cups of the same sticky fake blood used in the musical's splattering production. Inevitably, when the tired subject of an Evil Dead 4 is brought up, the prominently chinned actor doesn't even bother to douse the question poser with red goo before replying that there are no plans for a remake. "You can't go back," he says, with finality.
The next day, in his hotel room, the companionable 49-year-old down-plays his derision from the night before. "I don't have an issue with a fan of anything," he says, smiling. "To me, whatever keeps people from not shooting up a post office with semi-automatic weapons is fine."
Campbell has no relationship with the gory musical, but is complimentary of its success. At the Diesel session, he wondered aloud as to the hows and whys of such a thing originating in Toronto - "What's the matter with you sick freaks?" - but he does have an answer.
"Canadians in general, I've found, love humour," he says. "They love stuff that's over the top, so it made sense that it came from here. They're pretty jolly folks, the Canadians."
The jolly musical (with book and lyrics by Canadian George Reinblatt) which began small at Toronto's Tranzac Club, eventually became an off-Broadway success a year ago. A planned Toronto run of eight weeks this spring and early summer at the Diesel stretched out to 19 weeks. Only the upcoming arrival of the comedy Jewtopia prevents further extensions.
A deal has been signed for the musical to set up shop in Seoul, and plans call for possible mounts in Japan, Germany and Scandinavia, with a possible return to Toronto in 2008.
The lasting success of the Evil Dead franchise is not surprising to Campbell, who thrives in under-seen films and Old Spice commercials, and currently stars in the USA Network series Burn Notice. "If you have something really off-the-wall, nine people are going to go 'That's the best movie ever,' and tell all their friends," he says. "Whereas a Tom Hanks movie, they really make it so that it's bland enough that anybody can see it."
The result, according to Campbell, is that the fame of many mainstream films is fleeting. "You watch it, and then when it's over you go, 'Where'd we park?' The movie goes right out of your head."
Judging by Campbell's small, rabid fan base, a B-movie's stamp lasts longer not only in the brain, but on various body parts. In Toronto, as with other public appearances, the actor is asked to write his name on some people's backs, legs and whatevers, after which the scrawled-on fans get the signature traced as a tattoo. According to Campbell, the inky results are routinely marred. "Some of them do look good," he says, "but signing flesh is pretty iffy. The pen sticks, it skips, it's sweaty and greasy."
The actor doesn't limit himself to small-budget movies. He has made cameos in each of his friend Raimi's three Spider-Man films. So, is the B-movie champion, with such big-time blockbusters, selling out?
Not at all, says Campbell, who sees the A-movies for what they really are. "If you get bit by a radioactive spider, that's a B-movie. If you dress up like a bat and fly around a city named Gotham, that's a B-movie. And The Transformers, that's a way B-movie - a massive B-movie!"
And so, comic books are reborn as Hollywood megahits, and gory, low-budget films re-emerge as hit musicals. "The lines are getting blurred these days," says Campbell. "But B-movies are kind of where it's at from an originality point of view."
Evil Dead: The Musical plays at Toronto's Diesel Playhouse until Sept. 8 (416-971-5656).