To every generation, there comes a moment of greatness.
Storming the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944…
Setting foot on the Moon on July 21, 1969…
Bringing down the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989…
And now the season 2 premiere of “Ash vs. Evil Dead” this Sunday on Starz.
To celebrate the return of The Man, The Chin, The Legend, this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown examines two of the non-Evil Dead films on the resume of Bruce Campbell. It’s “Bubba Ho-Tep” (2002) vs. “My Name is Bruce” (2007) in a guts and glory look at an actor at the height of his powers and when he’s just having a good time.
“Bubba Ho-Tep” is one of the weirdest and most sentimental films I’ve ever seen, possessing the form of a farce and the heart of a tragedy. In it, Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) exchanges places with one of his impersonators to escape the burdens of fame and fortune, only to wind up an old man with a bad hip and a cancerous penis who is stuck living out his lonely last days in a rundown Texas nursing home. Plagued by regret and recrimination, the King of Rock ‘n Roll is forced to team up with an old black guy (Ossie Davis) who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy to save themselves and their fellow nursing home residents from a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy.
Seriously. That’s the premise.
Though it sounds like something from a struggling sketch comedy writer after too many nights of too many drugs and too little sleep, “Bubba Ho-Tep” is in reality a wonderful piece of cinema. It’s a horror-comedy where the horror isn’t a stiff-legged monster who care barely walk across a front lawn. This story is about the fear of getting old and everything it takes away from you. And even as you feel it all slipping away, you can still see the rest of the world going on just fine without you. It’s a terror we all face and to see it try and consume a man who became a legend while he was still alive is mesmerizing. Campbell’s deadpan narration and wonderfully poignant performance walks a thin line with grace and strength. If he tried to be too dramatic, the entire film would just collapse under its own absurdity. If he tried to be too funny, everything would just spin off into this lame parody of Elvis fandom. What he brings to life is a character who is equal parts humor and pathos, a man who was larger than life and is now as small as we are all scared of becoming.
But writer/director Don Coscarelli, working from a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, recognizes that the truly horrific thing about getting old isn’t what is taken from us but what we give away. Too many of us surrender our pride, our dignity and our sense of purpose, ceasing to be who we are and who we want to be long before our last breath. The message of “Bubba Ho-Tep” is that you can’t remain young but you can remain yourself, which is an awfully strange message for a movie about an Elvis impersonator who is actually the real deal, an African-American JFK and The Lone Ranger. Yes, The Lone Ranger is in this thing. As I mentioned, it’s really weird even before you get to the whole part about sucking people’s souls out through their buttholes.
And I must single out musician Brian Tyler for a lot of praise. The soundtrack he crafted for this odd, endearing little film is remarkable in how exquisitely it hits the proper emotional note at the proper time.
“Bubba Ho-Tep” is an amazing achievement that is a credit to all involved. It’s a perfect example of what the B movie genre should become, low budget flicks that try to be unconventional and entertaining at the same time. Though the B movie used to be the home of low brow and exploitative fair, we get more than enough of that from big budget studio productions today. And we surely don’t need any more art house films that crawl up their own intestinal track and expect to be admired for it.
“My Name is Bruce,” however, is an unabashed B movie throwback in form and function with a nice splash of post-modern snark. When a tiny town in the hills of California is suddenly threatened by an angry Chinese god who is decapitating everyone he meets, a teenage loser (Taylor Sharpe) kidnaps Hollywood hasbeen Bruce Campbell (Bruce Campbell) so he can defeat the monster and save the day. Unfortunately, the kid didn’t anticipate that his cinematic idol would be a bitter, broke, insulting, alcoholic egomaniac who never met a problem he couldn’t run away from.
Thinking the whole situation is a playacting lark arranged as a birthday gift by his agent (Ted Raimi), Campbell plays along at first on both pretending to be a hero and legitimately trying to get the teenage loser’s hot mom (Grace Thorsen) in the sack. When he realizes that the evil is real, Campbell has to decide if the ruins of his life and career are something he’s all that desperate to hang onto or if he could finally play the hero in real life.
High on energy and low on plot, “My Name is Bruce” is a classic B movie in that it was made by people who wanted to make a movie more than they wanted to tell a story and it kind of runs out of gas about 2/3rds of the way through. With comedy so broad that even Vaudeville would say “maybe you should pull back a little bit” and action scenes that amply demonstrate they didn’t have enough of a budget to hire someone who knew how to stage an action scene, this movie tries to get by on an irreverent, sarcastic attitude…and it pretty much does. With some laugh out loud moments and a constant stream of lesser amusements, this motion picture almost entirely succeeds at being a momentary diversion. It does fall off a bit in the last half hour when even the film can’t fool itself that there’s a genuine point to any of it but the first hour is enjoyable enough for the audience to coast along.
While “Bubba Ho-Tep” highlighted Campbell’s gifts as an actor, “My Name is Bruce” illustrates that he’s a smidge like Lucille Ball if “I Love Lucy” had never existed. He’s got the looks of a matinee idol but his greatest talent is playing the buffoon. While he’s burned himself into the brains of a segment of the public through the “Evil Dead” trilogy, Campbell has never had the mainstream success to match his ability as a performer. If you take “I Love Lucy” out of her resume, Lucille Ball becomes a mystery because you can’t understand how an actress with her undeniable appeal went from making nondescript movies to not-terribly-good TV shows without ever finding that vehicle to make her a star. Take “Evil Dead” away from Campbell and he becomes another one of those obviously engaging performers who never quite clicks, like Alison LaPlaca with a chin implant.
But thankfully, Campbell and the rest of us do have the “Evil Dead” trilogy. If you haven’t seen them, watch them. It is honestly one of the best trilogies in all of motion pictures, not simply horror. And if you haven’t seen “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” you might want to give it a gander. It’s bloody, it’s funny and it has a hero with a chainsaw hand. What more could anyone want?
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli.
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy, Edith Jefferson, Larry Pennell, Reggie Bannister, Daniel Roebuck, Daniel Schweiger, Harrison Young, Linda Flammer, Solange Morand and Karen Placencia.
My Name is Bruce (2007)
Written by Mark Verheiden.
Directed by Bruce Campbell.
Starring Bruce Campbell, Grace Thorsen, Taylor Sharpe, Ted Raimi, Ben McCain, Ellen Sandweiss, Timothy Quill, Dan Hicks, Logan Martin, Ali Akay, Ariel Badenhop, Jen Brown and James J. Peck.