Bruce Campbell at American Cinematheque

  Bruce Campbell in Bubba Ho-Tep
"Hail to the King, baby."
Bruce Campbell makes Elvis proud.

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Bubba Ho-Tep Review
It was a raucous evening at the American Cinematheque, when actor Bruce Campbell and director Don Coscarelli presided over a special screening of Coscarelli's latest directorial effort, "Bubba Ho-Tep." "Bubba" is a quirky, genre-jumping movie about an elderly Elvis Presley who didn't really die, and ended up a broken, dispirited curmudgeon in a Texas rest home. To make matters worse, Elvis has some sort of weird growth on Elvis' only friend is a delusional 86-year-old African American man who believes he's John F. Kennedy, only dyed black and possessing a head full of sand instead of a brain. This exceedingly odd couple must team up and fight an evil, soul-sucking force, which is targeting the hapless residents of the retirement home. Despite the weird premise, there is a surprisingly touching subplot involving the regrets and pitfalls of becoming old and forgotten.

Don Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell, while unknown to the casual moviegoer, are cult movie icons. A subculture of sci-fi/horror fans worships them. Coscarelli is responsible for directing, writing and producing the "Phantasm" films, a series that started back in 1978, with a fourth sequel on the way in 2003. In the movie "Phantasm," Reggie the Ice Cream Man fights to defeat a grave-robbing, inter-dimensional traveler who turns corpses into midgets, reanimates them into mindless slaves, and sends murderous, flying silver spheres armed with blades and drills to hunt and kill his prey. And no, I didn't just make that up.

Campbell is a legend in the B-movie realm, having starred in classics such as "Evil Dead," "Evil Dead 2" and "Army of Darkness." Campbell also played the recurring role of Autolycus in the syndicated TV shows "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." His fanbase is diverse: from dark-clad teenagers with piercings and tattoos, to 40-year-old parents who shamble up to him with the child they named after one of his characters. He's collaborated with longtime friend Sam Raimi on a number of projects, including a recent cameo appearance in "Spider-Man" playing the colorful wrestling announcer who gives Spidey his name.

What About "Bubba"?

Before the "Bubba" screening, Coscarelli explained that he was attempting to tell the "true story" of what happened to Elvis after he switched places with an impersonator back in the late '60s. Don said he didn't believe the official story of how Elvis was found in his bathroom, his dead body loaded with painkillers and his PJs around his ankles. "The King couldn't have gone out that way!," Campbell said. He added: "I'm very pleased to know that in our trying times, that there's always room for a redemptive Elvis/Mummy picture."

Campbell thanked the audience for supporting "Bubba Ho-Tep," which he lauded as a true independent film. Regarding the state of the independent film industry, Campbell said: "I think that [independent] is a word that's way overused. If there's a Fortune 500 company associated with it, it's not an independent movie! So like it or not, this one is. If it bombs, Don's screwed!"

Following the screening, the Cinematheque interviewer asked Coscarelli how he found author Joe R. Lansdale's "Bubba Ho-Tep" short story, and what he added or took away in the screenplay adaptation. Coscarelli said he asked a specialty bookstore clerk "what's new, what's cutting edge in horror" and the clerk pointed him toward Lansdale's books, saying his stories typically "[have] a high body count." Coscarelli was hooked. Coscarelli visited Landsdale at his home in east Texas and asked the author about adapting some of his stories into movies.

As for the "Bubba" adaptation process, Coscarelli said he added a few touches to make things more interesting, such as giant killer scarab beetles (don't ask), and he expanded the scenes of Elvis interacting with his replacement, a sleazy Elvis impersonator who lives in a trailer park. Besides the horror elements, Coscarelli was also attracted to Lansdale's exploration of themes involving old age, and the regrets that burdened Elvis as he lay trapped in his sagging, deteriorating body.

Landing Campbell

Oddly enough, a crank call led to Campbell's involvement in "Bubba." During early development, Coscarelli received a phone invitation to Sam Raimi's special screening of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." When Coscarelli called Raimi's office to confirm the event, Raimi had no clue about the "Close Encounters" screening, but during the ensuing conversation Coscarelli mentioned an Elvis picture he was working on. Raimi immediately pushed for Campbell as the lead.

"I think he was just saying that because he was your friend," Coscarelli jokingly said to Campbell.

Campbell said "Bubba" was the "freakiest script I'd ever read." He voiced his concerns over the subject matter: "I said 'Don, I just want to know one thing: Are you going to show the penis? I don't want to show the penis!' Don: 'No, I'm not going to show the penis.' Bruce: 'Okay, I'm in'."

The next obstacle Campbell had to overcome was his participation in pilot season. This takes place in Hollywood during the spring, when all of the major television networks cast actors for a test episode of a potential TV series. The sample show (or pilot) is taped and shown to producers and test audiences for approval/reaction. If a pilot is well received, it may turn into a series. "For pilot season it's like actors must be in Los Angeles and must be available for auditions," Campbell said. "But no, I wanted to go off and make [a movie about Elvis] with a growth on his pecker. I made sure to suck worse during pilot season more than I normally do, and not get anything so I could go: 'Can I go off and do the dick movie now?'"

Coscarelli and Campbell were amazed that respected screen and stage actor Ossie Davis ("Get on the Bus") joined the cast as the John Kennedy character. Coscarelli submitted the script to Davis' agent, whose initial response was lukewarm. "'It's kinda interesting, it's like 'Grumpy Old Men'...If you could just cut the mummy out,'" Coscarelli recounted. Eventually, the agent relented. "I think Ossie read it, and saw some redeeming value in it," Coscarelli said.

Campbell told the story of how Coscarelli hired a real Elvis impersonator to coach Campbell on how to dance like Elvis. "He's the shit, this Elvis guy," gushed Campbell. "He's the only Elvis impersonator on the Vegas strip," Campbell said. "This guy had a weird life...while he was a [prison] guard in Chino, an inmate stabbed him in the chest, as they [tend to] do. So he went on disability. He couldn't be a prison guard anymore. So he goes 'I'm going to become an Elvis impersonator!'"

Campbell's Freaky Future

Of course, it wouldn't be an evening with Bruce Campbell without some knucklehead asking him if he would make an "Evil Dead 4." In an exasperated tone, Campbell said that "in order to make 'Evil Dead 4' you would have to convince Sam Raimi to not do 'Spider-Man 2'." Then the next inevitable question came: "Will you return for ['Spider-Man 2'], and if so, what's your role?" Bruce pondered this question, then replied: "Why don't we ask Sam Raimi, he's right over there!" And with that introduction, Raimi -- who was hidden in the crowd -- rose to his feet and the audience exploded with applause. After the long ovation died down, Raimi said in his best deadpan: "I love the movie, Don. It's a brilliant picture. It's a great, great picture. But now that I've seen Bruce's performance in it, I'd like to reconsider that offer, Bruce". With that, Campbell whined: "That's okay. I'm busy doing 'Bubba Nosferatu!'"

Beyond future "Spidey" appearances, Campbell is also writing a follow-up to his best-selling autobiography "If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor." His new book is tentatively titled "Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way." "It's a book about relationships," quipped Campbell. This summer, Campbell is directing and starring in "The Man with the Screaming Brain" for the Sci-Fi Channel. He described it as "sorta like 'Body Heat' with a brain transplant." Coscarelli is set to direct Campbell in "Phantasm's End," the supposed "final" sequel to the horror movie series.

As this article went to press, "Bubba Ho-Tep" still did not have a distributor. Coscarelli has received DVD offers, but he said he didn't want to "take the easy money," preferring to hold out for a full-fledged theatrical release. In the meantime, take comfort in knowing (or fear for everything that is holy and good) that a sequel will be appearing someday under the title "Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires." Campbell described it as the story of a younger Elvis: "It's what Elvis did between 'Clambake' and something else. [It's] a bunch of voodoo and black arts." After that, a second sequel may follow: "Bubba Sasquatch."

Did you hear that sound? That was Elvis convulsing in his grave.

Joey Damiano is Filmfodder's West Coast correspondent.