Bubba Ho-Tep

Here’s a movie in which a geezer who may or may not be Elvis and an old black man who says he’s John F. Kennedy team up against a mummy who’s been stealing the souls of rest-home patients out of their assholes. Yet the film’s director Don Coscarelli can refer to it as “a serious drama,” and you see what he means. Bubba Ho-Tep, a ready-made cult film if ever there was one, has been a grassroots sensation, selling out festivals and now, on DVD, flying off store shelves. Why? Because Coscarelli, mainly known for his 1979 horror oddity (and classic) Phantasm and its sequels, is at home with the weird and sees no need to emphasize it. The premise, taken from a Joe R. Lansdale story (collected in Writer of the Purple Rage, then published in a hardcover along with Coscarelli’s script), is left-field enough, and Coscarelli digs inside it and comes up with surprising moments of poignance and delicacy.

Consider the broken-down Elvis (Bruce Campbell), with hip problems that necessitate a walker, and a possibly cancerous growth on his penis. Or Jack Kennedy (Ossie Davis), who gets around okay sometimes, but is later seen using a wheelchair. These are very fragile heroes, and when the mummy shows up at the rest home, we are worried about Elvis and Jack in a way we wouldn’t be about hale and hearty young heroes. When Elvis tumbles down a hill, we wince. And the first reel or so of what’s being marketed as a fun and funky cult flick is about as depressing as anything you’ll ever see: rest homes are no fun — people are left there to die, alone, and when they die they’re tossed into a hearse with the eulogy “Aah, who gives a shit?” When was the last time you saw a raw and unblinking treatment of these places in a movie? How fucked-up is it that we have to see it in a movie about Elvis vs. a mummy?

Relax, though: fun is in store, and Bruce Campbell’s Elvis, viciously cynical in his obsolescence, keeps us entertained in his narration: “I woulda thought of ‘Cilla and popped it by jackin’ off,” he says of his penis growth, “except I hadn’t had a hard-on in years.” Too much info, but dead-on funny. Elvis needs a purpose, and the mummy gives him one; he forges a bond with Jack, the only one who believes Elvis is really Elvis, and they work on a plan. (It involves fire, not a lot of CGI. In fact, no CGI. How low-budget was the movie? Put it this way — they didn’t even have enough scratch to film a bus crashing off a bridge; Coscarelli gets around it with as much ingenuity as his heroes use against Bubba Ho-tep.)

Elvis famously posed for a photo with Nixon, and pledged his services to that president as a DEA agent (while high on drugs at the time); and there’s been some joking speculation (at least I hope it’s not serious) that Elvis killed Kennedy. So it’s fun to watch these two icons of the 20th century together, and the movie even winks at conspiracy theorists when Jack asks Elvis flat-out if he had anything to do with what happened in Dallas. (Jack’s explanation for his appearance now? Best to let the film explain it.) We’re given a not-too-implausible theory of how Elvis, sick of the fame and excess and hangers-on, might have switched places with an Elvis impersonator and doomed himself to more obscurity than he bargained for. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Jimi, Janis, and/or Jim Morrison too, but I guess Coscarelli has to save something for the sequel, projected to be called Bubba Nosferatu (sadly, though, Ossie Davis’ JFK won’t be along for the ride).

Most of the movie is Elvis and Jack talking — Coscarelli clearly didn’t have the time and money for too many shooting days involving Bubba Ho-tep and his little scarabs (pulled along on charmingly obvious strings) — and Campbell and Davis have an easy rapport, playing the material absolutely straight, as if the two actors had decided over lunch that the premise was bizarre enough to deserve their utmost commitment and offbeat enough to need it. Bubba Ho-Tep is not the wacky camp-fest you’d expect; if it were anyone but Coscarelli, Campbell and Davis involved in this, I would’ve been wary of it. (I mean, 50,000 Elvis fans may not be wrong, but 50,000 Elvis parodies get old after a while.) It is, surprisingly, a meditation on aging and the place of the elderly and infirm in our society. Of course, it’s also a horror-comedy with Elvis kicking mummy ass. After all these years — and 25 years after Phantasm, a movie that had nothing in common with any horror film before it, and which is still unlike any horror film after it (except for its own sequels) — Don Coscarelli still doesn’t know how to make cookie-cutter genre films. Let’s hope he never learns how.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, cult, one of the year's best

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