So is the great Bruce Campbell, whom I recently interviewed by phone. The star of the Evil Dead films is one of my favorite actors, so I was a bit nervous going in. My nervousness was compounded by the fact that I didn't really have any questions prepared, because, as mentioned above, there isn't much to say about Bubba Ho-Tep. Or so I thought. Fortunately, Campbell was more than ready to do all the talking. From the moment the interview began ("You ready to dance?") he was just the way you'd want him to be: funny, sarcastic, and rightfully proud of his work.
"This is not a horror film," Campbell proclaims. "Whatever aisle they put it in at the video store, that'll define it, but to me, it's just a redemptive Elvis-Mummy picture."
I ask if he was an Elvis fan prior to taking the role.
"I was not originally," he replies. "Because when I graduated from high school in 1976, he was like one year away from death. At that time he was like Hawaii-comeback-bloated-drug-induced Elvis. And I thought he was just a freak. But in getting ready for this part I looked at a lot of concert footage, and that's when you really go, 'Holy shit, this guy's a stud!'"
This is some comfort, since half the reason I planned to hate this film was that I hate the cult of Elvis.
"Here's what I say to Elvis fans," Campbell explains. "Bubba is the true way in which the hero should have been treated. You don't want to remember him straining at stool at Graceland. We want to know that he died a hero, and maybe this is the way he did."
Campbell then elaborates on why his Elvis--"a bitter old guy with cancer on his dick"--is better, or at least more "real," than the one you see smiling on key chains and coffee mugs across the land.
"That's what bothers me," the actor continues. "The image of Elvis is always [in Elvis voice, naturally], 'A-yes, ma'am, a-thank you, ma'am, thankyouverymuch,' like a mama's boy. Whereas in reality, he was a bird dog. The real Elvis is probably--at 68, with cancer on his penis--he's probably pissed off all the time."
Can you blame him?
"Here's a guy," Campbell interrupts, "who didn't think prescription drugs were drugs. 'Look man, I'm tired after this performance, I gotta slow down.' So they give him something to slow down. Then, 'Shit man, I'm draggin', I need somethin' to get me goin'.... What hotel room is this, man?' I can totally buy the fact that he went out of control. And plus, deep down you go [Elvis again], 'Is this it? Is this how I'm supposed to feel? I'm supposed to be pissed off all the time? I'm either waking up or going to sleep and people are taking pictures all the time and I'm supposed to be Captain Happy?' No way."
All this talk about the cult of celebrity leads Campbell to a bit of a logical leap.
"I wouldn't want to be Tom Cruise," the actor asserts. "And plus, admit this: Would Tom Cruise's handlers ever allow him to play this role? They'd say no. They'd say, 'Tom, you can't play a guy with cancer on your dick.' I can."
Surely, this is mathematical proof that Bruce Campbell is better than Tom Cruise.
"Not better," Campbell clarifies. "More fortunate in some respects. Tom's just too aware of who he is now. He can't allow himself to disappear into a character. I have no pressure whatsoever to play one character or another. Not that you have to have a guy with cancer on his dick in your movie, but it's nice to know that you can."
Back to the subject at hand, I observe that, penis cancer notwithstanding, Bubba betrays a certain tenderness toward its characters that you wouldn't necessarily have predicted.
"No question about it," Campbell agrees. "If I was part of the Elvis estate, I think I'd be pretty happy with how Daddy was portrayed. No one's winking at the camera. I am Elvis. Ossie Davis thinks he's JFK. There are no jokes. I think that's what gave it its only chance at survival. I think the filmmakers did want to portray a sympathetic approach to that character, as twisted as it is. We collectively wanted to present a movie that would not insult the core audience. If you're calling this a Mummy picture, then at least have some respect. We're trying to respect the genre. Whatever genre it is."
The biggest surprise of all, however--bigger than the film being good, bigger than Elvis being likable--is the presence in Bubba Ho-Tep of Ossie Davis.
"Isn't that great?" laughs Campbell. "I look at it this way: I'm just as amazed as you. And every day, I was like, 'Ossie, what are you doing in this movie?' But if you think about it, it's a good role for him. He's 84 years old, how many great parts is he going to get? If anyone can pull off that sort of sincerity--when Ossie Davis says he's Jack Kennedy, you wanna believe him. His representatives didn't want him to do it. And mine didn't want me to do it. But it's great when you can defy the usual routine and actors are allowed to just act. That's when Hollywood is at its best."