To most horror fans, Bruce Campbell is the King of Cult Movies. As the hapless “Ash” in Sam (Spider-Man) Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, Campbell made it cool to be a self-centered, barely-capable, swaggering, cowardly braggart. Thanks to the fan-following of these movies, Campbell has become a valuable headliner at horror and science fiction conventions, and his autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, became a best-seller, enjoying ten printings in hard-cover alone.
For most of the past two years, Campbell has been on the road, promoting his book and meeting his legions of fans. At conventions, the man is gracious, personable. At Baltimore’s annual Horrorfind Convention in 2001, after speaking for over an hour, signed autographs for the rest of the evening, setting up a chair next to him and allowing each fan to take as much time as he or she wanted. When the fest co-coordinators announced that it was time to close the convention hall, Campbell replied, “Well, let’s move this out to the parking lot,” then – still got plenty of people in line. They waited this long because, for some silly reason, they want to meet me. How can I turn that down?” (The hotel staff was convinced to allow the room to stay open and let the line play itself out. Campbell was allowed to escape to his room just before eleven pm.)
Right now, there is a new movie making its rounds at festivals and conventions, and Bruce Campbell has the lead. The movie is called Bubba Ho-Tep and it has a very strong pedigree. In addition to Campbell, the film stars Ossie Davis (“Cotton Comes to Harlem”), and Reggie Bannister (“Phantasm”); the script is based on a short story by cult writer Joe Lansdale (Two-Bear Mambo), and was directed by none other than Don (the “Phantasm” series) Coscarelli, with special effects provided by KNB. Though the movie has been finished for over a year, Bubba Ho-Tep has yet to find distribution. (“Bubba Ho-Tep” has recently found distribution through American Cinematheque/Vitagraph Films.)
Maybe it’s not so hard to figure out, however. See, in Bubba, Campbell is playing Elvis. Elvis at 68-years-old, that is, and he’s in an East Texas nursing home, suffering from a cancer-ridden penis and waiting to die. Then the rest home is attacked by an ancient mummy who is sucking the souls from the residents from any available orifice. There’s only one thing for the King to do: team up with an elderly black man who thinks he’s JFK and take on this Egyptian ghoul.
So, okay. Bubba Ho-Tep hardly fits into the handy Hollywood plot box. Still, it’s almost an outrage that this movie has yet to be seen by more than a few handfuls of loyal fans lucky enough to have caught convention screenings.
“It really was the weirdest script I’d ever read,” Campbell says. He’s driving to Kansas City as he speaks to me (which puts a lot of pressure on this interviewer: one wrong question, he drives off the road and suddenly I’m the guy who killed Bruce Campbell). As for why he was even attracted to the role, Campbell admits that it was never a great desire to play Elvis. Rather: “It was the whole combination – Don Coscarelli was involved, he certainly has a clue as a filmmaker and was going to take the right amount of time to shoot. A lot of these low-budget things are done in three weeks, but Don wanted to take six weeks. I went, ‘Okay, that’s good’. We were able to get the KNB guys to do the Elvis make-up and I was certainly okay with that. All the elements were just there so that we were all comfortable. We knew nobody was going to get rich off of it, but we all wanted to do it, because it really was the weirdest script I’d ever read. But there’s something oddly touching about it. I’ve seen it twice in theaters now, with packed houses, and it really plays well.”
Obviously, there aren’t too many existing movies comparable to the weird fun of Bubba. The low-budget movie was Campbell’s next gig, right on the heels of appearing as the “Ring Announcer” in old pal Raimi’s big-budget Spider-Man. “That’s the beauty of show-biz,” Campbell says. “As long as you don’t play the game of what you feel you’re always entitled to. As an actor sometimes you get onto big gigs and sometimes you get onto small gigs. It’s not like anyone was forcing me to be there. It was all very voluntary and that’s what made the primitive nature of it very doable. (Bubba was enjoyable) in a working sort-of way. We were working every day. A very inexperienced crew shot this movie, but what they lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm. It was good, but it was a challenge to put on that make-up for three to four hours a day and work all day for, whatever, thirty-five days. It kind of gets old, near the end. It was nice to see your own face at the end of the day, instead of that crinkly old a*s!”
One of the distribution problems, Campbell feels, is that Bubba Ho-Tep is not really one kind of movie, so the studios who might be interested wouldn’t know what to do with it. “Bubba Ho-Tep really isn’t a horror movie at the end of the day. It’s more of a mummy picture. An Elvis/Mummy Picture.” And even if it was closer to horror than anything else, then comes the fact that most marketing people have a great fear of the label “horror”. “Unfortunately, the label downgrades the picture, yeah. Absolutely. Look, horror films have always had a shitty image. Always have and always will. Horror films are one step above porn! And yet, some of the coolest stuff I’ve done have been horror films. I feel that any genre is one hundred percent acceptable as long as you’re not making fun of the genre, or you’re not belittling your own genre. As a writer, I think you should just write the story without worrying where it’s going to fall. If it falls into a b-grade shoot-‘em-up, as long as it’s an honest effort, then what the hell? I wish we had a healthier revolving set of genres. I mean, the western is gone, essentially. The war film comes and goes, but recently they’re just big spectacles. I don’t know, give me Sam Fuller, give me “Red Badge of Courage,” give me those weird, low-budget war movies. So, I think we’ve got to round everything out, and each genre should be a little truer. I think we should see some real horror films coming out – some real, scary-a*s, not kidding around horror films. The Sixth Sense (was the last really good one I saw). That one deserved to make money, I feel.”
The interview continues in part two of BRUCE CAMPBELL: DEFENDER OF B-MOVIES>>>