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Apparently, He's Still in the Building
by Lucius Shepard
October 28, 2003

Though most prominent fantasy and science fiction movies typically cost upward of a hundred million to make, the genre has always seemed best served by films unencumbered by huge budgets. Many of these “little” films have brought a fresh sensibility to their subjects, movies such as The Quiet Earth, Donnie Darko, and Jean Luc Godard’s noirish satire Alphaville, a movie whose worth is something about which few agree and yet is usually compared, whether favorably or negatively, to pictures made decades after it was shot, this testifying to the fact that it presaged both cyberpunk and the cinematic legacy of Philip K. Dick, while simultaneously glancing back at the work of Huxley and Orwell. Alphaville had such a low budget, its special effects were handled by means of a voiceover—secret agent Lemmy Caution narrates an interstellar voyage as he drives his Citroen across the Seine, and, because of the film’s metaphorical density, we are more than tempted to disbelieve our eyes and accept what he says as true, that we are crossing the galaxies rather than a stretch of dirty water and that the lights in the sky are not the lights of a bridge but astronomical objects.

Not all low-budget genre pictures, of course, either aim or reach so high. Even more central to the genre tradition are movies like those directed by John Carpenter and his apparent lineal successor, David Twohy (Pitch Black, The Arrival, Below). I would argue that apart from a smattering of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Jackson’s Ring trilogy, not only the most significant films, but the most entertaining films, set with the genre limits have been B-pictures . . . and I intend “entertaining” in both the sense of well-crafted stories and just plain fun. One need only contrast classic genre films with their more expensive remakes to see that budget constrictions have little to do with the quality of the product. True, in some instances the remakes have been better; but more often than not they have fallen flat, and even when they do not so fall, when the remake has proven superior to its original, this has been due to better scripts, direction, and acting, and not because of enhanced production values or any other big-ticket item. Indeed, the best remakes of classic genre films have themselves been B-pictures—Carpenter’s The Thing, Ferrara’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, et al—whereas the worst—Coppola’s Dracula, a bloated operatic nightmare of the sort that usually follows the ingestion of too much spicy food, though less well-conceived than most; Independence Day (not technically a remake, but heavily derived from Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers); Godzilla; any of the King Kong rehashes; etc. etc;—have generally been promoted as blockbusters. In light of these inept monstrosities, when Hollywood talks about plans to remake War of the Worlds and Forbidden Planet, it becomes necessary to suppress a shudder.

I doubt that anyone will essay a remake of Bubba Ho-tep, a low-budget genre picture that passed though the theaters as quickly as Einstein through Kindergarten . . . though given the eccentricity of studio decision-making, one can never be sure about these matters. Whatever the case, director Don Coscarelli, the man responsible (perhaps “culpable” might be a more suitable word choice) for the Phantasm series, has made a B-picture that falls into the category of just plain fun and will almost surely develop something of a following on DVD due to the cultish nature of its materials and the cult status of its lead actor, Bruce Campbell. Based on a story by Joe Lansdale (an attractive book, by the way, containing both the story and screenplay, along with stills from the movie, is available from Nightshade Books), Bubba Ho-tep poses the notion that Elvis Presley (Campbell) did not die in a bathroom at Graceland, but lived on into his seventies and is now experiencing a kind of decaying pre-death in a seedy, abusively neglectful East Texas nursing home. Through flashbacks and the King’s voiceover (as effective a device to create suspension of belief as the voiceover in Alphaville), we learn that years before, having grown weary of fame, the real Elvis traded places with the world’s best Elvis imitator. The two men wrote a contract establishing that the real Elvis could reclaim his rightful status whenever he wished, but the contract was destroyed when a barbecue grill exploded and blew up the imposter’s trailer (into which the real Elvis had moved). After his replacement’s highly publicized and ignominious death, Elvis makes his way through the world, not altogether unhappily, earning a livelihood by imitating himself until he breaks his hip in a fall from the stage. Now, afflicted with a penile cancer and forced to get about on a walker, he has given up on life. Paunchy, his trademark sideburns and pompadour gone gray, he passes his days limping about the halls of the nursing home, clad in robe and pajamas, and watching his old movies on a black-and-white TV. The other residents of the home are equally deracinated, abandoned by their families, living joylessly and without hope. Included among their number is one John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis), who claims to be the former president of the United States transformed into an Afro-American by means of surgery and skin dye, this at the behest of his mortal enemy, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It seems that Elvis does not entirely believe the old man is JFK, but he treats him with the respect due a president (the respect due a good one, at any rate), and this serves to reinforce the sweetness of the relationship that develops between the two men.

After several of the residents die under mysterious circumstances, and after Elvis himself is attacked by a flying scarab beetle the size of small dog, he begins to be re-energized by the awareness that some terrible menace is afoot in the nursing home. He joins forces with JFK and learns from him that an ancient Egyptian mummy is loose in the area. Through a succession of telepathic visions and some doddering detective work, Elvis discovers that the mummy was stolen by a couple of good ol’ boys from a traveling exhibition of Egyptian artifacts. While making their escape, the good ol’ boys ran their vehicle off the road during a heavy downpour and into the river that flows past the nursing home. They died in the crash, but the mummy lived and since that time it has survived by making night raids on the nursing home, deriving sustenance by sucking the souls out of the occupants. For some reason glossed over by the movie, perhaps as a byproduct of the digested souls of the good ol’ boys, the mummy appears dressed in cowboy hat and boots and writes hieroglyphic graffiti in the bathroom stalls whereon he voids himself of soul-residue—thus, Bubba Ho-tep

Having read this far, it should be clear that I am not talking about a straight horror flick here. “Gonzo” is a modifier that has been applied to much of Lansdale’s fantasy/horror work and it certainly applies to Bubba Ho-tep. The movie is more farcical than suspenseful, more comic than dramatic in its pretensions. What horror element there is lies not so much with its improbable boogeyman as with its depiction of the nursing home as a wastebasket for living human remains. Yet while the script is threadbare in patches, and at times the budget (or lack thereof) shows, especially in the realization of the mummy, Bubba Ho-tep is nonetheless successful in what it attempts, and this is chiefly due to Bruce Campbell.

Campbell is best known for his recurring role as the wise-cracking, cartoonishly post-modern hero, Ash, in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, and gained some mainstream exposure as the star of the short-lived TV steampunk western series, Brisco County, Jr., roles that displayed his considerable comedic skills but provided him with no opportunity to demonstrate that he had range. Folks, he’s got range. In Bubba Ho-tep, his “aging” of Elvis’ various mannerisms is wonderfully managed, particularly his hilarious take on the King’s hillbilly kung fu moves; but instead of delivering a mere impression of the septuagenarian Elvis, still sporting big hair and wraparound glasses, he gives us a nicely-observed portrait of a man who, though reduced by age and disappointment, is possessed by a shadow of the macho self-parodying persona that he adopted along his road to fame. It clings to him like a ghostly cape, even as he stands in the front yard of the nursing home, leaning on his walker, craning his neck to see off along the street. He seems himself not to know exactly how much of the persona was a put-on, but it is this persona that he must re-adopt in order to function as a man once again. At the end of the film, like Batman slipping into his costume, Elvis dons a white leather rhinestone-studded jumpsuit and cape, fully stepping into his old role preparatory to a final battle with the mummy; yet it was unnecessary for Coscarelli to incorporate that detail into his script, because Campbell has already achieved the effect by means of his actor’s craft. As Elvis seeks out information about the mummy, Campbell shows us a man reclaiming his lost dignity and pride. He encourages us to think of Elvis Presley in a more complicated way than we usually might—as a man of parts, someone who may have become lost in the Chinese boxes he constructed to sustain his personality against the stresses of fame—and he succeeds with a surprising degree of subtlety in illuminating the process of an individual who is trying to re-learn how to play himself. In the midst of all the over-the-top situations and Hee-Hawish redneck foliage and deep-fried dialogue (”I felt my pecker flutter once, like a pigeon having a heart attack . . .”), Campbell’s performance is unexpectedly moving and authentic in feeling, imbuing the absurd plot with a passion and substance it would not otherwise have had.

Coscarelli, whose previous directorial efforts have displayed little concern for character, instills the movie with a leisurely pace that reflects the dreadful slowness of life at the nursing home and gives Campbell and Davis room to develop their roles. Some of his work with the movie’s ultra-low-budget special effects is also worth mentioning. That dog-sized scarab beetle, for instance. When it first appears, you’re expecting to catch sight of a wind-up key somewhere on its body; but by the time Elvis has finished with it, thanks to Coscarelli’s camera, to an expertise doubtless gained from photographing the flying killer spheres in the Phantasm flicks, this ludicrous prop has generated a suitable measure of menace. But Coscarelli’s best move clearly was casting Bruce Campbell as his lead and doing whatever he did—whether reining him in or giving him his head—to extract this performance. Was it a fluke? The result of the director’s sleight-of-hand? Or has there always been a gifted actor trapped inside Bruce Campbell and waiting to get out? I wonder if any studio is willing to take a chance and find out? Probably not. However, at the end of the credits there’s a tag that appears to promise a sequel. If Coscarelli manages to get it made, despite my loathing for the very concept of sequels, I’ll stand in line to see if he and Campbell can do it again, because Bubba Ho-tep has no CGI monsters, no Brads, no Toms, no Bennifers, no refugees from -Dawson’s Creek or Roswell desirous of being real live actors, nothing but an outrageous story and a well-drawn main character, and . . . Well, all I’ve got to say about that is, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much.”