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What's What

This week in the movies: murder, Elvis, and porn.


Bubba Ho-Tep, an uneven bit of insta-camp from director Don Coscarelli (of Beastmaster and Phantasm fame), has its moments thanks in no small part to a generally clever script and an uncharacteristically subtle performance by cult-horror icon Bruce Campbell, who, campy prerequisites aside, may be the best celluloid Elvis impersonator since, well, Elvis. That's right, Campbell, the cartoon-jawed actor known for his campy one-liners ("Gimmie some sugar, baby"), may have abused his latex privileges in an attempt to look a bit more kingly, but whenever the crude-leaning dialogue allows (and sometimes when it doesn't), he plays things off legit, making such predictable lines as "TCB, baby" almost bearable.

Unreliably narrated by a man who may or may not be the king of rock-and-roll, alive, yes, but by no means well, and, to make things unimaginably depressing, stuck in an East Texas nursing facility, Bubba Ho-Tep is a Borgesian yarn pondering the merciful side of dementia, the indignities of old age, and the classic Lovecraft-inspired terrors of a premature burial. And, yes, surprisingly enough, there are a few truly terrifying moments tucked in amid the easy laughs, calculated groaners, tawdry special effects, and anticlimactic fight scenes.

Crippled and living out his last lonely days at the Shady Rest (not Kate's cheery little hotel at Petticoat Junction, mind you), Campbell's character couldn't be less interested in living. Nobody visits him, and why would they? Thanks to an ingenious (but ill-fated) switcheroo with a drug-addled (but convincing) impersonator named Sebastian Haff (also played by Campbell, Adaptation-style), even Elvis' immediate family thinks he's really dead. And maybe he is -- who knows for sure? Elvis/Haff claims to have pulled the Prince and the Pauper stunt in order to shuffle off the immortal coil of superstardom and be reborn as a perfectly normal guy with all the rights and privileges of a common man. But according to our earnest, openly bitter narrator, Haff liked his fried food and his speed even more than the genuine article did, so he died on the john and on the job. Now the man who should be Elvis is buried alive in a low-rent nursing home, obsessed with a disfiguring growth on the tip of his lifeless unit and having visions of an unfortunate Egyptian prince for whom the embalming process began before the dying set in. Gruesome stuff, that.

The only person who admits that Campbell's character may actually be who he says he is is a dapper and dignified octogenarian (the esteemed Ossie Davis, of all people!) who thinks he's John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Just to make matters that much worse, there might be an ancient Egyptian mummy roaming the dark halls of the Shady Rest, wearing raggedy clothes and vintage cowboy boots, catching oldsters by surprise and sucking their unfortunate souls out by way of the anus. Well, that's what the crazy old farts who think they are Elvis and JFK think, and who would ever dream of arguing with those guys?

Bubba Ho-Tep's shabby chic may appeal to folks who like their horror flicks lit like amateur porn and their movie monsters more silly than scary, but the cheap TV-pilot aesthetic puts camp squarely in the spotlight even as it undermines the film's genuinely creepy satire. Campbell's and Davis' sincere, ever-sympathetic portrayals, however, keep things moving right along even when one-liners replace dialogue and the compelling puzzle of what is real and what is lunacy is left flapping in the breeze.

David Lynch, the famously oddball director as obsessed with issues of identity as he is with American pop culture, could have easily made Bubba Ho-Tep. In fact, he should have made Bubba Ho-Tep because he could have made it every bit as terrifying as it is farcical. And, come to think of it, he's about the only filmmaker out there who might be able to give easy (and inevitable) jokes about the peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches the fine edge they so richly deserve. Sadly, the more flyweight Coscarelli just couldn't resist taking the cheap shots, both literally and figuratively.

-- Chris Davis

There's a handful of porn stars that even the general, non-porn-consuming public may know about: Linda Lovelace, Ron Jeremy, Traci Lords, Rob Lowe (amateur), and "Debbie" from Dallas. The king of them all and subject of Wonderland was John Holmes -- known chiefly for the size of his endowment. (I'm too much a gentleman to put such things into print, but let's just say it's twice the male average) and his prolific work as a film actor (between 1,000 and 2,500 films to his credit -- but who's counting?) He is also a famous accessory to the 1981 "Wonderland" murders of four of his acquaintances, so-called Wonderland because of the street where the events transpired. The name Wonderland also serves as an ironic nod to the loss of innocence one experiences when consuming too much "Eat Me" and "Drink Me" snacks and falling down too many rabbit holes. By 1981, Holmes was mostly finished with the porn trade and had shifted his addictive attentions to drugs. His involvement with the four victims of the Wonderland killings was wrapped entirely in his need for the next fix, and their deaths were a direct result of his inability to stave off that particular demon.

We meet Holmes (Val Kilmer) as he comes to the pseudo-rescue of his sometime-girlfriend Dawn (Kate Bosworth) who has run away from him but, once safely cared for by a VW-bus-driving samaritan (Carrie Fisher), calls him to rescue her from her rescue. Seems that the straight and narrow is kinda boring compared to the highs and lows of loving the world's most famous porn star and coke-head. They fall quickly back into the wrong crowd and spend most of their time riding one drug-addled high to another, until the police beat down their hotel room door and arrest Holmes. His friends -- the wrong crowd -- are dead. What follows is an '80s grunge Rashomon; telling the same story from several sides and asking its audience to make its own determination -- based on its collective analysis of Holmes' character -- as to what really happened. Was John Holmes present at the murders? Or was he merely at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Everybody loves a good murder mystery, and I think it's because people like to figure things out and be surprised. One would think that the shattered perspective of Wonderland might then be pleasing to those in search of some Hollywood intrigue and "whodunnit," since the crime is established early on. The motive and involvement of Holmes is then the subject of scrutiny. But audiences also like to care about people, and Wonderland doesn't present a Holmes we can like. Kilmer, who has languished away from all of his promising leading-man potential in recent years, does a fine job making him real and investing in him a person and not just a personage. But everything he does is so disgusting (from pimping out his girlfriend for more drugs to ratting out his "friends") that we can't really get under his skin without somehow sullying our own. Which isn't a bad thing.

My favorite movies grab you by the collar and pull you into the mud with them and then defy you to clean yourself afterward. (I'm thinking Bad Lieutenant and The Rapture here.) But somewhere in those kinds of films there is a moral compass. It may not exactly point north all the time, but there is a measure of values that sets the tone and establishes the world of its characters' decisions. In the infinitely better Boogie Nights (comparable for its hugely endowed porn protagonist and crime-ridden jaunt through the '70s and '80s), that compass was Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner, whose kingpinship of the porn industry set the bar for everyone else (audience included). In the infinitely better Auto Focus, that was John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) whose baseness is absolute at the beginning and at the end. We would revile these people in our lives, but in the movies we care about them because they lead us through their dark worlds, and so long as we believe in them, we are safe. (Bob Crane does not stay true to Carpenter in Auto Focus and pays the forfeit with his life.) In Wonderland we have no compass. We are left only with our own curious assumptions about Hollywood as it stood 20 or so years ago and a 1980s Summer of Love soundtrack to point us in the direction of that particular mire.

Every performance in this film is excellent, from Kilmer to Lisa Kudrow as Holmes' estranged wife Sharon. But the mystery is unhinged by characters we do not care to know, and we cannot help but feel that they got what was coming to them. -- Bo List

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