190. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)

“I’m watching this movie, it’s this picture about, uh… it’s really weird. It’s like the guy who took the acid or something, he smoked a marijuana or something before he wrote this picture…”—“The King,” speaking to an unknown party on his cell phone during the Bubba Ho-Tep DVD commentary

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce

PLOT: Having giving up fame for a simple life and switched places with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, Elvis Presley is now an aging old man with a boil on his penis languishing in an East Texas retirement home. One of his fellow retirees is Jack, an African American who insists that he is actually ex-President John Kennedy. The two old men discover that a mummy is haunting the corridors of the rest home, feeding on the souls of the elderly, and together they hatch a plan to defeat the creature.

Still from Bubba Ho-tep (2002)
BACKGROUND:

  • Bubba Ho-Tep is a faithful adaptation of a novella by cult horror writer Joe R. Lansdale first composed for the now out-of-print anthology “The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-mortem,” which also contained stories and essays by Roger Ebert, Lou Reed, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.
  • The budget was reported to be between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Although there is a flashback concert scene in the film, the producers could not afford to license any actual Elvis songs, so you only hear generic Vegas-showroom-style intro music. Similarly, the scenes from the “Elvis” movie marathon seen on television are just cleverly-edited stock footage, with no actual Elvis films ever glimpsed.
  • The end credits announce a prequel called Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. Although intended as a joke, fan interest in such a movie ran so high that Coscarelli, Lansdale and Bruce Campbell tried to get it made, although it never came together. Campbell has reportedly lost interest in the project and it is presumably as dead as Elvis.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Aging Elvis, in his trademark rhinestone suit and cloak and a walker, marching off to face off against a mummy.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The only way Bubba Ho-Tep could have failed to be weird is if it lacked faith in its premise of a geriatric Elvis and a black JFK fighting a mummy in a rest home, and instead turned the tale into a self-congratulatory parody. Thankfully, everyone involved takes the story and characters at face value, honoring the oddness and humanity of the inherently absurd situation.

Original trailer for Bubba Ho-Tep

COMMENTS: No matter what we achieve in life, whether it’s charting 80 top 40 hits or facing down Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba, chances are good we will end up in diapers. Sure, there’s always the possibility we may OD from a prescription narcotic combo on the toilet or be gunned down by an assassin while riding through Dallas, but more likely than not we’ll find ourselves bedridden in a home, reliant on a nurse to drain the pus from our infected peckers, dreaming of past conquests. This all-too-common twilight predicament is where Bubba Ho-Tep locates its heroes, two aging icons—or inmates—living out their last days on teetering on the edge of dignity and delusion. Their past accomplishments are forgotten, the staff treat them like children, and a dessicated mummy slinks through the corridors at night, just waiting for the chance to wrap his lips around their posteriors and suck out their souls.

It’s a horrible fate that awaits many of us… well, except for the soul-sucking mummy part. But there can be dignity in even the most ridiculous situations, as Bruce Campbell’s strangely affecting portrait of a bitter Elvis with a wrinkled sneer and a walker reminds us. Without a doubt, the entire crazy enterprise of Bubba Ho-Tep would never have worked without Campbell’s comic yet empathetic portrayal of a rock n’ roll Lothario gone to seed. The performance works on multiple levels. On the surface, Campbell captures Presley’s molasses diction and mannerisms perfectly, aging them believably. He is funny, as when Elvis obsesses over the putrefaction of his once mighty phallus, or tries out his old kung fu moves against a scuttling scarab beetle (you can almost hear his bones creaking). His pained expression when an attractive woman in a short skirt bends down in front of him—unafraid to give him a peek at her “love nest” because to her he is no longer a sexual being—is priceless, at the same time hilarious and moving. Yet, despite the absurdity of the premise, Campbell’s alternate Elvis is a believable creation, half curmudgeon, half pickled charisma.

Elvis’ even-less-likely partner in mummy-slaying is Jack. As an actor, the late Ossie Davis, 85 at the time of this performance and three years away from his own death, had nothing left to prove. He simply brings his natural class and humanity to his portrayal of a man who legitimately believes himself to be former U.S. president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who survived a head-shot from Lee Harvey Oswald only to be dyed black and packed off to a rest home. And, although we don’t believe Jack really is JFK with a melanin injection, there is something psychologically true about his belief—whoever he was in a past life, he has now been pushed aside, denied by family and friends, and left to die in an institution.

It’s too big of a leap for us to accept that Jack is who he says he is, but we do believe that Campbell is Elvis—because he looks and sounds the part, and because we see this world through his eyes. Technically, there is little reason for us to to doubt the nursing home’s official line that “Elvis” is really Sebastian Haff, an Elvis impersonator who fell from the stage during a performance, cracked his hip, went into a coma, and emerged believing he really was the King. But we want to believe in Elvis, because we like Campbell’s character, and by believing that he was once the most popular musician in the history of recorded music means we acknowledge that there is something great and wonderful trapped in this decaying shell of a human being. The reason Jack and Elvis bond is because Jack unquestioningly accepts that Elvis is who he says he is. For his part, Campbell’s character can’t bring himself to believe that Jack is JFK (“no offense, but President Kennedy was a white man”), but he’s eventually willing to play along, even going so far as to ask him how Marilyn was in the sack. If Jack is the only one willing to see Elvis for who he really is, then Elvis will return the favor and accept that Jack is who he says he is. No one else, neither the families that abandoned them or the paid attendants who bathe and pity them, will grant either of them that respect. There is no greater basis for a friendship than Jack and Elvis share in Bubba Ho-Tep.

With their partnership forged in the movie’s fascinating first two-thirds, all that is left is for the two limited-mobility warriors to defeat a soul-sucking mummy and save their fellow residents from having their spirits digested and expelled through the dusty intestines of a centuries-old Egyptian. Here is where Bubba Ho-Tep‘s glory fades a little. The mummy himself is a fine creation, though not very scary and actually a more than a little bit past his prime, just like Elvis and Jack. He’s a minor mummy, no former Pharaoh but only a lesser noble, and he’s been reduced to prowling the corridors of a rest home looking for easy prey that no one will miss. To try to fit in to his new East Texas surroundings, as much as an emaciated corpse in rotting funeral dressings can, he’s clad himself in snakeskin cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat with an eagle feather in the band, which makes him look like a skinny hick pimp. He’s not an impressive supernatural antagonist, and the final fight, with Elvis doddering on a walker and JFK dozing off in a motorized wheelchair, is necessarily an anticlimax.

Elvis triumphs not by defeating Bubba, but by dragging himself out of his nursing home bed, sliding into his rhinestone jumpsuit, and waking from his own living death for one last defiant grasp at life. Improbably, this former icon returned to Earth to wait out his remaining days with the rest of us becomes a sexagenarian everyman. Bubba Ho-Tep is a silly movie, but at its core is a powerful human longing to be recognized by others as the heroes we are in our own stories. Who wants to die in bed, and have our loved ones throw our last shabby belongings in the trash? When our time comes, let’s all hope we go down swinging against a shambling mummy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The best thing I can say about it is that it’s original in conception, which these days is not to be underestimated. The trouble is, it may be too original for its own good.”–Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“One of the most cool and tantalizingly bizarre flicks of 2003, this movie isn’t afraid to try anything.”–James Berardinelli, Reelviews (contemporaneous)

“Coscarelli’s wacky weirdness is too clever by half…”–Jim Lane, Sacramento News & Review (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Bubba Ho-tep – Thirteen years after release, the official site is still up, with news items, trailer, a “Stab the Scarab” flash game, and ads for John Dies at the End

IMDB LINK: Bubba Ho-tep (2002)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Film Director and Screenwriter Don Coscarelli – Don Coscarelli’s 18-minute interview with NPR to promote Bubba Ho-tep (he speaks extensively about Phantasm as well)

Quint on BUBBA HO-TEP + Interview with Coscarelli, Bruce Campbell and Joe Lansdale!!! – Interview with director Coscarelli, star Campbell and writer Lansdale for Ain’t It Cool News at the film’s Las Vegas premiere

Elvis lives! Don Coscarelli on ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ re-release, sequel – Interview with Coscarelli to promote Bubba Ho-tep‘s 2013 re-release

Bubba Nosferatu: The Latest News on Bubba Nosferatu, movie prequel to Bubba Ho-Tep – An entire fan page devoted to a movie that has yet to be officially announced

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bubba Ho-Tep – This hardcover book pairs Joe Lansdale’s original story with Coscarelli’s script

DVD INFO: As you might expect from an instant cult classic, the Bubba Ho-tep DVD (released by MGM) (buy) is packed with extras. Most significant are two separate commentary tracks, one by director Coscarelli and star Campbell, and the other a comic riff by Campbell in character as “the King” (who disapproves of the movie—in his day, movies didn’t need to curse or go for cheap laughs with boner jokes). Fans will enjoy two deleted scenes with Campbell/Coscarelli commentary (which show why the folksy third-person narration was discarded) and a longer edit of the Egyptian flashback scene. There are also 45-minutes of “making of” featurettes, a photo gallery, an audio clip of Joe R. Landsale reading from the original novella, a music video of the theme song, and trailers.

Bubba Ho-Tep is not available on Blu-ray in North America (yet). It can be had via Video-on-Demand (buy or rent).

(This movie was nominated for review by Bryan C. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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