February 19, 2003

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Script Doctor

The last of the independents

IT'S A TESTAMENT to the popularity of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival that its closing night at the Roxie Cinema sold out weeks before the fifth annual go-round had even begun. Local print coverage had been scant, and some in the cliquish festival circuit still view IndieFest as the proverbial little brother who blows milk bubbles at the dinner table. But this year IndieFest's reputation rose and its screenings were packed, thanks to Bay Area premieres of some prime psychotronic doozies (speed freaks, reverse rapes, and zombie killers, oh my!).

Its final gala was so oversold that the press couldn't get in. I even whined and pleaded with festival founder Jeff Ross. "Is there any way I can squeeze in? I'm very quiet and well-mannered."

"Sorry, we literally have no seats. We're beyond Roxie capacity," Ross patiently explained. "But drop by for the Q&A afterwards, and I'll see what I can do."

The film was Bubba Ho-Tep, a kitchen sink of schlock horror and broad comedy wherein an elderly Elvis (The Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell) and a "dyed-black" JFK (Ossie Davis) – both of whom are not, in fact, dead but living in a rest home in Mud Creek, Texas – fighting a southern-fried mummy who sucks souls out of one's, ah, most southbound of orifices. But it was the Q&A that had people lined up around the block: Both the film's director Don Coscarelli (the man responsible for Phantasm and, thus, a generation's therapy bills) and B-movie icon Campbell were scheduled to attend, cause enough for an army of paleness to leave their basements and venture into the outside world.

As the lights went up on a mixed audience of Mission District hipsters and those who hadn't seen natural light since the last San Diego ComicCon, Coscarelli and Campbell walked to the front of the theater to loud applause. Clearly stunned by the adoration ("We're used to screening this for executives who go, 'Elvis? Mummies? Penile cancer?' So this is unusual," the director explained), they still worked the crowd like an old vaudeville team. "We'd like to thank you for having the wit, intelligence, and class to choose this for your evening's entertainment," Campbell deadpanned. "This man is worth a million in DVD sales," Coscarelli said, pointing to his star. "They've all bought Army of Darkness eight times, so I'm sure they know," the actor countered.

The duo gamely fielded fan questions ranging from freaks-and-geeks golden ("Will there be any action figures available?" one patron asked, probably only half-kidding) to appropriately hammy. "How did you research your role as Elvis?" someone asked. "I'm, uh, not allowed to talk about it. Let's just say I had some help 'from an unnamed source,' " Campbell responded. "What's next for you guys?" "Either Bubba Sasquatch or Bubba Nosferatu," they said. "Will there ever be an Evil Dead 4?" "Sure – you'll just need to convince (Dead director) Sam Raimi that it's more of a financially lucrative offer than doing Spider-Man 2," Campbell said as he contemplatively stroked his famous chin. "Hmmm ..."

After sequel talk and a plug for Campell's upcoming book on relationships ("The publisher suggested Sex with Bruce Campbell, which is just too crass. I prefer Make Love with Bruce Campbell), the oddball requests began popping up. Autographs were signed; photos were snapped. One patron lamented that his friend, the world's number-one Evil Dead fan, couldn't get a ticket to the show. Could Bruce call him at home? The actor grabbed the gentleman's cell phone and dialed the friend's number: "Hi, is this Steve? Steve, let me ask you a question, Are you happy with your current insurance providers? Hello?" The superfan had hung up.

Then the filmmaker and the erstwhile Elvis impersonator were gone, leaving behind a theater full of satiated horror buffs and a would-be cult classic still without a distributor. Luckily, a (near-) midnight screening was added, much to the relief of the dozens turned away earlier at the door. This is one festival San Francisco clearly needs. Just be sure to get your tickets early next year or risk being left out in the cold with the rest of us. (David Fear)