After they got to him: Bubba Ho-Tep

Thursday 9 December 2010

A guest post from the vaults of the Airforce Amazons’ Surveillance Section, where special agent Ray Butler has been watching the tapes.

Recorded in 2006.

Elvis Presley’s first movie was supposed to be called The Reno Brothers. The screen tests for this workaday, western drama show the young singer doing his best to fulfil a long-held ambition: to be a ‘real’ actor, like James Dean or Tony Curtis (It was Curtis he was emulating when he dyed his hair from fair to the trademark jet-black). In a 1956 TV interview, Presley is unambivalent in his intention to keep the movies and his singing career entirely separate. After the movie was shot, Col. Tom Parker and the studio convinced him to do a few musical numbers, and the picture was retitled Love Me Tender. And thus, that least distinguished of genres, The Elvis Movie, was born.

“Shitty pictures, man - every single one,” says The King in Don Coscarelli’s little indie miracle, Bubba Ho-Tep. Based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale, the movie finds Elvis (Bruce Campbell) alive, sort of, in an old folks home in present day Texas. Pretty old and largely bed-ridden, he spends his days having ghastly dreams about the growth on his pecker, watching fellow inmates/patients get wheeled out under a sheet, or poring over his many, unique regrets. His nurse, of course, believes he’s some crazy old guy who just thinks he’s The King of Rock and Roll, like fellow patient John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis), also alive, black. Elvis notices a marked increase in the death rate around the nursing home, as does The President. Events lead them to conclude, correctly, that the residents are being killed off by nothing less than an Egyptian Mummy, who stalks the corridoors at night, preying on the weak and forgotten.

I should say at this point that this movie didn’t need to be sold to me. When I heard ‘Bruce Campbell as Elvis fights Mummy’ I was always going to be there, and unless the movie was an unmitigated stinker, I was probably going to like it, or at least enjoy it. Little did I know I was going to see the best Elvis Movie ever made.

Central to its success is the casting of Bruce Campbell. His fans were among the first group of nocturnal diehards to see and support the film, and Coscarelli has even said that one particular scene was pretty much put in there ‘for the Evil Dead crowd’. While the scene is terrific, and the gesture is as warm as it is pragmatic, I think, he needn’t have worried about pleasing anybody. Campbell’s portrayal of Elvis is a career-best, and confirmation for those of us who have long suspected his range to be wider and deeper (howdy, Brisco County fans) than his essentially genre-based career path might indicate. Having seen it a few times now, I find it hard to imagine anyone better-suited to the broad mix of styles and scenarios the film utilises in its portrayal of Presley.

And it is for this singular portrayal that Bubba Ho-Tep deserves to be considered outside of the indie/horror/exploitation genres it may well linger in - it looks at Elvis a little differently, no mean feat when the word ‘saturation’ seems to have no meaning in the context of Elvis Presley Inc. And it does so through a ballsy mix of wild fantasy, horror, toilet humour, genuine pathos and visual flair, somehow arriving at the most believable depiction of the man I've ever seen. Very deftly, the movie manages to embrace and harness all the larger-than-life, Weekly World News elements of the legend and roll them convincingly into this portrayal of a sad, rueful soul. It also demonstrates why, in some cases, a straight, po-faced biopic (I hope you’ve all forgotten the Elvis mini-series) just won’t work. The facts of Elvis’s life, and the folklore of his afterlife, are just too insane to be captured by conventional methods: you almost need elements like an Egyptian mummy and a dead President sidekick just to keep a sense of proportion.

Any time Irish DJ John Kelly plays an early Elvis track on his remarkable radio show Mystery Train, he'll usually say something along the lines of “. . . that was Elvis there - before they got to him.” Anyone who’s ever seen footage of the young hick on The Ed Sullivan show in 1956, the breakthrough year, or interview footage from the same time will know exactly what he means. There you’ll see a remarkably gifted, intelligent young man giving his absolute all to a clanky, scary, still-thrilling, hybrid music he clearly loves - nothing more, nothing less. By the end of that same year, he’s a millionaire, on TV they only film him from the waist up, his old band are ditched and Love me Tender, the first Elvis movie, has made a bucketload for all concerned. The music too, though still great, is already starting to morph, on the inexorable slide from Baby Let's Play House to In the Ghetto. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie especially for those of us who wonder why he let it happen, why a smart kid like him never got out. By imagining that Elvis does indeed live, and by inventing a world strange enough to contain the legend, it bestows on the myth of the man’s life one aspect some might say it lacks: redemption.