Certain questions come up time and time again: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? Who was the boss? They are almost unanswerable, and no amount of scientific observation or mathematical formulation can hope to find a satisfactory conclusion. One such ever-posed question is: Who’s better, Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton? I think I’ve spent more time trying to decide this case than I did on which college to attend. Just when I think I’ve got it figured out, I see another performance by one of them that tips the scales the other way. It’s just a puzzle that might never be solved. So, it was my own dumb fault that I chose the 1990 film Brain Dead to watch. It contains a plot based solely on dreams, head injury, and mental illness, so of course it’d have both Pullman and Paxton. I might still be watching it now. I can never be sure again.
Brain Dead is a movie designed to make your head hurt. It’s not a matter of understanding what’s going on because you can follow the movie perfectly and still not be sure what’s going on. I simply lost count of the times Bill Pullman’s character woke up from a dream or suddenly appeared in a time and place in which he wasn’t a moment ago. The title is appropriate because it not only applies to characters in the movie but also the people making the movie and the audience watching the movie. It’s like a snake eating its own head. And as if the combination of Pullman, Paxton, and disjointed narrative weren’t enough already, let’s add to it a nutso performance by Bud Cort as an insane person with some kind of secret numbers in his head.
All right, so I suppose I ought to at least attempt to describe the basic plot. Bill Pullman plays Dr. Rex Martin, a brain specialist who is experimenting with human brains after they’re dead. His laboratory consists of a rack of hundreds of brains in jars, which he insists should all be treated as though they’re living people with souls. Weird-ass guy. He plugs these brains into a severed face they happen to have in there as well. He uses this face to show what happens when you shoot electricity into brains. His old pal Jim Reston (Bill Paxton) shows up with a favor to ask. Jim is a big shot for the Eunice Corporation, a huge conglomerate that doesn’t seem to have a discernible function but is clearly up to no good. Jim wants Rex to talk to someone named Jack Halsey (Bud Cort), who was an employee of Eunice before he went nuts and slaughtered his wife and kids and who has a 3-number code somewhere in his memory that’s very important to the company.
Essentially, Jim and the rest of the Eunice board of trustees (including George Kennedy… why, oh why?) want Rex to mess around with Halsey’s brain to either retrieve the numbers or wipe his memory clean to prevent him giving the numbers to anyone else. This procedure involves cutting open Halsey’s skull and fishing around in his brain. Later, after being hit by a car, Rex begins to have increasingly terrifying dreams regarding his wife (Patricia Charbonneau) and Jim having an affair and a creepy man in a bloody white coat who Halsey believed really killed his family. Stuff really starts going wrong when people start believing Rex is Halsey and that he’s the crazy one. Perhaps he needs to be lobotomized too.
This movie is like a wide-awake nightmare. It’s meant to be edgy and mind-bendy (it proudly boasts a screenplay by Charles Beaumont, one of the original writers on The Twilight Zone), but it’s really just a series of people not believing Bill Pullman as he runs around like a crazy person trying to prove he’s not a crazy person. There are a couple decent jump scares, and some gruesome shots of people with their eyes gouged out and their skulls cut open, but mostly it’s just very samey. It thinks it’s a lot more clever and more terrifying than it actually is, and mostly just feels like a 90-minute episode of The Twilight Zone, complete with the prerequisite “Nice try, asshole” ending. Brain Dead would be much more interesting if that TV show didn’t exist and bring with it a sense of where a story like this will ultimately end up. The “twist” ending is not that dissimilar to the end of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but for the fact that it can’t decide which twist ending it wants. There’s also a truly terrible dance-electro song over the end credits that features bits of dialogue from the film. Totally doesn’t fit the tone the movie’s trying to maintain.
And so, the most important aspect of the movie: Who’s worse between the Bills? Well, Pullman, being the lead, has a lot more chances to be awful. His attempts at being a nerdy scientist are pretty hysterical, especially when he gets on his high horse about stuff. He also does his fair share of screaming, though not to the extent as he does in things like The Serpent and the Rainbow, which is basically a movie about how loudly Bill Pullman can scream. Paxton, on the other hand, gets to be the shadowy and sinister figure and throw us some great over-the-top hammyness. Paxton doesn’t quite reach the levels of scenery-chewing he achieved in Aliens, but this is still when he was playing offbeat instead of mainstream. Ultimately, though, the question, again, cannot be answered. Brain Dead is far too “meh” of a movie to truly be the measuring stick for either of these actors. I suppose that means this debate will go on further and further until such time as both Bills appear in the same movie again. Heaven help us all when that day arrives.