“In the movies, I always played the heroic types. But when the stage lights went out, it was time for drugs and stupidity, and the coveting of women. Now it’s time. Time to be a little of what I had always fantasised of being: a hero.”
Bubba Ho-Tep is not only the best film with Elvis in it. It is the best film with JKF in it. It is the best film set in a care home for the elderly. It is the funniest film about mummies. And it is one of the funniest and saddest horror films I know of. Bubba Ho-Tep is way, way out there, man. It’s from a place where you can get Ding Dongs, Baby Ruths and giant, ghastly-looking Scarab beetles! As mad and ‘b-movie’ as that sounds, the film is surprisingly accessible. It is certainly made on a low-budget but is yet filled with impressive visuals (for the time). And it has an ingenious script, which is the film’s pièce de résistance. There are so many absurdist factors jam-packed into the story that it is hard to believe something so coherent and entertaining could come from this. Bubba Ho-tep is a triumph, and yet, due to its difficulty in being sidled into a simple genre, it has never sat comfortably in the mainstream. Instead it remains a cult classic of the early noughties. A ‘midnight movie’ if you will. It intentionally never received a full theatrical release and was only ‘roadshowed’ around the US at film festivals after it was made in 2002. Its cult status was secured through word-of-mouth, and eventually securing a DVD release in 2003 allowing the rest of the world to chuckle uncontrollably at its ludicrous premise. There’s actually a pretty decent Blu-ray version available now.
But what indeed is the premise, I hear you ask? Well, where to start?! It is the modern day and we enter a musty Aged Care home in Texas, where we find an ageing man with a puss-filled pimple on his penis. He is incapacitated on a bed, and looks a lot like Elvis Presley. Indeed, it turns out to be the King himself. In flashback we are told that he never did die back in 1977 because he made a secret deal with the best Elvis impersonator around (Sebastian Haff). He was to swap places with him for a while, so that he could take a break from all the madness. But, as he explains, the impersonator had ‘a bad ticker’ and died after a performance in Memphis. The signed documents Elvis had that showed evidence of the deal then blew up in a barbecue accident, so nobody believed his story, and he continued his life as an ‘Elvis performer’ until he had nothing left to give, eventually ending up in this home as a grumpy old man, with his ex-wife Priscilla and his daughter Lisa Marie as distant memories – we presume they, like everyone else, never believed he was actually Elvis. With the back story out of the way, we are then introduced to another resident at the home – an African American man who claims to be John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This man explains that after the assassination attempt in 1963, Lyndon Johnson had his skin dyed black and shut him off from society so that no one would ever believe who he truly was. Unsurprisingly, old Elvis and JFK become friends and allies. Then there is the whole matter of ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ – this thing is seemingly a ‘cowboy mummy’ who stalks the corridors of the home looking for souls to feed on (note: Elvis calls him a ’shit eater’, because he sucks the souls from people’s rectums). In a pre-credits reel, it is explained that an ancient Egyptian mummy had been stolen during a US museum tour but after their getaway car crashed into a river in Texas, the mummy was lost. And there you have the pitch….Elvis and JFK face off against a cowboy mummy in an Aged Care home!
There are many excellent little titbits associated with Bubba Ho-Tep, not least the fact that mega-chinned cult legend Bruce Campbell features as Elvis. Campbell is that guy from the Evil Dead movies, and indeed a whole load of other crap movies besides. He is so famous for his b-movie catalogue that he even has his own Horror Film Festival. His performance here as Elvis has been lauded by many a critic as the best personification of the King in cinema (excluding Elvis’s own performances I presume). Take that Kurt Russell! Then you have the equally legendary Ossie Davis playing JFK. Davis, in his 80s here (and the same age as JFK would have been), was a Civil Rights activist and a rare successful African American actor in the 1950s and 60s. He later earned recognition in Spike Lee’s movies of the 1980s and 90s. Like Campbell, he puts up an entertaining and comic show here. In addition to Campbell and Davis, the other big name associated with this low-budget release is director Don Coscarelli, who up until that point was best known for the excellent fantasy horror series Phantasm and the sword and sorcery flick The Beastmaster. Coscarelli adapted his screenplay for Bubba Ho-tep from a short story by East Texan writer Joe R. Lansdale, which featured in a gloriously-named anthology, ‘The King Is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-Mortem’. The eye-catching short story, with its absurdist situation and strange themes, was written in 1994 and contained even wackier incarnations of historical characters than the film does, e.g. the notorious gangster John Dillinger is a foul-mouthed old lady.
As mentioned, the film was made on a delicate budget. Bruce Campbell was secured because…well he was happy to appear in anything…but with the promise that Coscarelli brought with him, Campbell believed that something good was happening. The budget was around $500,000 and the location set was basically an old, abandoned veteran’s hospital in LA with filming occurring over 30 days. The special effects team worked free of charge as a favour to Coscarelli, who also utilised his mates from the Phantasm series to star in supporting roles. The film is a typical b-movie in terms of its set-up and filming. It has a vibe of ‘so bad, it’s brilliant’ about it. Often the mistakes and continuity errors are not even disguised. The one glaringly obvious issue with the film is the lack of Elvis music – apparently it would have cost half the budget of the film to secure rights to just one of his songs. So don’t expect ‘Surrender’ or ‘It’s Now or Never’ to play during the mummy showdown (but imagine how good it would be if it did). There is also a scene where Elvis is reminded of his heyday as he watches a TV advertisement for an ‘Elvis Marathon of Music and Movies’ – however, the clip does not actually show Elvis or even feature his music. It’s just stock black and white footage of old films and music concerts!
You can easily overlook the flaws of Bubba Ho-tep by revelling in its extraordinarily bonkers premise, which absoultely works very well believe it or not. The script by Coscarelli is without doubt his best work. The lines delivered mostly by Elvis, but also JFK, are instantly re-quotable and endlessly funny. A few here as an appetiser, if you haven’t seen the film yet, and say it in an Elvis accent for full effect:
“I felt my pecker flutter once, like a pigeon having a heart attack.”
“Even a big bitch cockroach like you should know… never, but never, fuck with the King.”
“Come and get it, you undead sack of shit.”
“Look, man, do I look like an itchyologist to you?”
We even get a subtle helping of ‘Thank you. Thank you very much’ even when we are not expecting it. And yet for all the comedy and glorious one-liners, Bruce Campbell serves up one of his most heartfelt roles and I would agree that it is the best portrayal of Elvis on film. Even though it is meant to be a ‘fantasy Elvis’, it is still a remarkably affecting and believable Elvis. Granted, the JFK thing is pure daftness, but as an audience you tend to genuinely inhabit the situations of these two men – up against the odds in their old age, with no help around. They are attempting to save the world from a soul-sucking creature-thing with just a spray canister, a wheelchair and a lighter! Sure, the mummy is slow-moving and not in the possession of any major wieldy powers, but he is just about fightable by the combined intelligentsia and feeble physical abilities of the two old-timers, and this makes it oddly compelling.
The sad situation of Elvis and the fact that he is all alone in later life also triggers the heart-strings. When a young woman comes to the home to collect the belongings of her father who has just passed away in the bed beside him, he reminisces of his own daughter and one cannot but be affected by this scene. He often ponders about the life that he once had as he sits around eating crap food with the other people in the home, some having gone mad and some unable to speak. His treatment by the staff and the comments by the bumbling funeral undertakers also allude to the wider neglect that society has for old people. It is all very melancholic and can be quite relatable to a lot of people. But the melancholy is often sidelined by absurd horror action and terrific comic moments. The horror is first prompted when a gruesome Scarab beetle appears in the corridors and devours an old lady who has been stealing from the other residents. The comedy then comes in the bucket-loads after we are introduced to Elvis and JFK. This is arguably the best ‘midnight movie’ of the 21st Century so far.