Posted in Coming Soon
Elvis lives! Don Coscarelli on ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ re-release, sequel
The king of rock ‘n’ roll is back to take care of some unfinished business.
“Bubba Ho-Tep,” Don Coscarelli’s quirky tale about the unlikely friendship that springs up between Elvis and John F. Kennedy as they face off against an ancient mummy in a dilapidated retirement community, returns to theaters beginning this weekend as part of a promotional effort to tout Coscarelli’s latest project, “John Dies at the End,” which opens Friday.
The film screened Friday night in Los Angeles, and is set for a handful of dates across the country in the coming weeks.
Adapted from a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, “Bubba Ho-Tep” has amassed a significant cult following in the years since its 2002 premiere at the CineVegas International Film Festival. The story supposes that it wasn’t Elvis Presley who died in such an ignominious fashion in the Graceland bathroom in 1977 — it was an Elvis impersonator who had switched places with the King after the legendary entertainer decided that he was ready to return to a normal life.
Decades later, he’s found himself in a sad-sack facility for the elderly, alone and unloved, with his vitality sapped and a disturbing, potentially cancerous growth on a certain part of his anatomy.
“It’s sort of the companion piece to ‘Amour,’” Coscarelli joked late last year, comparing his cult horror-comedy to Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated drama about a couple at the end of life. “It’s about aging and death in a different way.”
Elvis, played in a hilarious yet touching turn by actor Bruce Campbell, finds an unlikely sense of purpose when an Egyptian soul sucker begins to prey on his fellow residents, and he joins forces with JFK (Ossie Davis) to stop the fiend. How exactly is JFK there, you ask? It’s kind of a complicated story, but it involves his skin being “dyed” and part of his brain being removed, replaced with a bag of sand. Naturally.
Coscarelli, who remains best known in some circles for the “Phantasm” horror franchise, spoke to Hero Complex earlier this week about his memories of making the movie, how he cast Campbell and Davis as the American legends and why he thinks “Bubba Ho-Tep” is still so memorable many years after its debut.
Are you surprised that “Bubba Ho-Tep” has enjoyed such enduring popularity?
DC: Yes and no. I was so in love with the Joe Lansdale short story that I would read it, and the story would actually bring tears to my eyes. I showed it to friends when we were making it and people thought I was nuts. They just didn’t get the whole concept of it being a genre movie staring two old geezers, that was the conundrum when I went out to try to get funding. There was this constant naysaying, “Don, you’re crazy.” “No, we’re not going to fund it.” “Put some young people in it.” I just always had faith in that core story. This whole end-of-life thing is a big issue for everyone. As everyone gets older, they start to face this idea that you can spend this life striving for great things and wind up cast off in this grim old folks home.
When did you first come across the short story?
DC: I’ve been a big fan of Joe Lansdale since, like, 1990. All his books are pretty strange. I had tried with no success to get a couple of his different projects funded. There was a great horror Western called “Dead in the West” that I loved. There’s an epic saga that takes place in a drive-in called “The Drive-In.” I love both of those and tried to mount them with no success. With “Bubba Ho-Tep,” the one thing that was beautiful about the project was that it was pretty simple in terms of logistics. It was really just these two guys, a nurse and the old folks home. There’s a lot of ruminating Elvis, there’s some sequences involving the mummy, but they weren’t that expensive. That movie was made really inexpensively.
Don Coscarelli, left, and actor Bruce Campbell in 2003. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
How did the project actually come together?
DC: It’s funny how my career path follows the same situation every time. I get these projects and I take them out to some different studio sources and just get a resounding “No.” You realize quickly, they’re just not going to make a movie like that. What’s funny though is that a lot of those folks, when they see the movie, they get it. But on the page they didn’t. I found a couple of investors, I put some of my own money into it. It was a small budget, it was under $1 million. Everybody worked inexpensively. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis were very fair in what they asked to be in the movie. The film was very profitable at the end of the day.
How did you come to cast Ossie Davis and Bruce Campbell? That’s not an obvious pairing.
DC: Ossie was always there from the very beginning. I’d been a huge fan of his. He and his wife, Ruby Dee, had written an autobiography together… I went and watched one of their appearances because I was thinking about casting him in the movie. He was wearing a suit, he looked just like JFK in the movie. He was so distinguished, I was too nervous to even go over and introduce myself. I just watched him as he gave his presentation and I thought, that’s the guy. Then we approached his agent, who was helpful, but he didn’t get the story at all. I kept badgering them, and finally I guess Ossie read the script and liked it.
DC: Bruce was a different story entirely. Funny enough it came as a recommendation from Sam Raimi [who directed Campbell in his “Evil Dead” films]. I told him I was working on this Elvis movie, and he said, “Oh you should cast Bruce Campbell, he’s a great actor.” He says, “I’ll have Bruce call you.” Ten minutes later the phone rang and it was Bruce. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re doing an Elvis movie.” Then when I met with him in person, I realized that he has the chin issue, but other than that, he’s a good looking guy, got the dark hair, had a passing Elvis-y thing going on. The other thing was he had a lot of experience with makeup and he was going to have to work the makeup. There’s a real art to that, of making the makeup come alive. I cast him, and then the first time he started doing an Elvis riff, it was just so obvious it was going to be hilarious. “Tell me, baby, what are we going to do here?”
Elvis (Bruce Campbell) switches places with a famous impersonator in “Bubba Ho-Tep.” (Silver Sphere Corp.)
What were your first conversations with Ossie like? In some ways, it’s tricky to imagine such a distinguished man enthusiastically responding to such a quirky, kooky story.
DC: Ossie was a little more circumspect. Look, the man is a legend. Beyond his acting career, he’s a very distinguished author, historian, social activist, director in his own right, he may have directed the first blacksploitation film ever in “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” The guy’s a legend and he carries himself with gravitas, so in some ways it was like I was meeting the president a little bit. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what he thought of the script. He was going to do the role. He seemed interested, but it wasn’t like he gushed over the script or the concept, he was very professional. I think one of the great parts was that he and Bruce Campbell bonded and I think it showed. They were both no-nonsense, get-the-job-done type of guys, there was a relationship between them that showed in the movie.
Where did you shoot the film?
DC: It was all shot in Downey. This was a great facility at the Rancho Los Amigos hospital. We did pretty much everything there except when Elvis has his big journey down to the river — I think we shot that up in Malibu Creek State Park.
Ossie Davis in “Bubba Ho-Tep.” (Silver Sphere Corp.)
HC: Why did you decide to distribute “Bubba Ho-Tep” independently?
DC: I got a wonderful invitation up to the Toronto Film Festival. We screened it up there, I just couldn’t get distributors to come out and view it. I guess the ones that saw it didn’t think that audiences would get it. Nobody had any interest in theatrical. There were a couple of DVD offers. That’s when I learned the ropes of independent theatrical distribution. It’s a very interesting business and it actually can be a lot of fun, but it was about a six-month process. We opened at the Nuart [in West Los Angeles] and did these huge grosses. I think the gross there was something like $25,000. It was big. It’s fascinating how when a movie takes off like that the independent theater owners just swarm you and everybody wants the movie. Back then, when we were making it in 35 mm, each print was like $1,400. We only ultimately struck, I think, 37 prints, and probably if we would have put the money up and doubled that, we could have made more money. There was a lot of old-fashioned showmanship. “Phantasm” and “Evil Dead” fans were putting posters up and trying to marshal the Internet before there was social networking.
Why do you think the movie has such an ardent fan base?
DC: I’ve been told that Elvis fans respect the movie. Even though it gets real wacky, we didn’t make Elvis ridiculous and we didn’t disparage him. In a way we took him seriously. A lot of these Elvis fans, myself included, can’t believe that such a Southern gentleman and the greatest entertainer of all time could go out the way that he supposedly did, with his PJs at half mast around his ankles falling off the toilet at Graceland. I think in some respects Elvis fans look at the movie and they think, ‘Well, this is how the King should have gone out, two-fisted, with Jack Kennedy at his side.’ I also think that the power of those two actors’ performances and the bond they created, the friendship, [gives the movie an emotional weight]. It’s amazing in such a strange movie that it works on that level. But I will tell you that it was always there in the short story for me when I read it. That wasn’t my doing. The score by Brian Tyler is awesome, and it really hits the emotional notes. It’s funny and it’s also moving, that’s probably why it works.
What’s the status of the sequel?
DC: I would love to do a sequel to it. Maybe in time I’ll reconnect with Bruce and we’ll figure out a way to make it happen. Certainly there’s a fan base for it. Whether the people that put up money would ever recognize that or not, I don’t know. I’d love to see it. I’m willing. Send any financiers willing to invest in a movie my way.