Synopsis: When an aging Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and JFK (Ossie Davis) discover that a string of deaths plaguing their east Texas rest home is not due to their fellow residents’ old age but is instead the fault of a soul-sucking mummy (Bob Ivy in heavy makeup and prosthetics, sporting a cowboy hat and boots!), they discover new reserves of strength, courage and determination and commit themselves to stopping the fiend. Don Coscarelli’s ballsy yet heartfelt adaptation of the novella by Joe R. Lansdale is a crowd pleaser unlike any other. It’s the one, the only Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).
Earlier this year, Trista and I enjoyed a month long appreciation of movies starring Kurt Russell. Amidst some of the more traditional genre fare, we found the time to catch the first collaboration between Russell and director John Carpenter, the 1979 biopic-for-television about the life of Elvis Aaron Presley. As that flick was winding through The King’s history, building to his explosive 1969 comeback tour, we got bit by the bug to revisit Don Coscarelli’s little horror-comedy flick.
Bubba Ho-Tep is one of those movies that should not work. It shouldn’t have worked as a story, but the strength of Lansdale’s writing and the energy of his prose carried readers along. It should not have worked as a feature, but the visualizations Coscarelli brought to the script and the filming gave the film a life all its own. The premise above is unique (to say the least), even in the realm of sf/f/h film, and the execution is a treat to watch.
At its heart, the film is a buddy picture between two insane people. Is Elvis really Elvis, as he claims, or is he Stephen Haff, an Elvis impersonator who has broken a couple of cylinders in his brain? Is Jack really JFK, a part of whose brain is being held hostage in Washington and who has a little bag of sand up in his skull, or is he actually a black man who has lost his mind somewhere and taken on an identity that was somehow less painful than his own? Well, no matter which side of the fence you fall on in terms of interpretation, the result is a wild ride wherein Bruce Campbell takes care of bidness and Ossie Davis steals every scene he is in. These guys do not wink for the audience, they play their weird roles completely straight, and that gives a tremendous amount of credibility to the outrageous (some might describe it as ludicrous) set up.
The film is low budget, but fun. The effects are practical, the makeup is eerily cool, and the creature design for the mummy is neat. Though his powers and abilities are never quite clarified—can he teleport? Is he some kind of ghost who occasionally looks and acts like a mummy? Where does he get the pencil to draw hieroglyphic stick figures on the guest crapper stall’s walls, and how did they end up so high up? Does he only have the one flying, killer scarab and if so what’s the connection there?—his motivation is clear enough: He’s “like King Tut’s little brother” and therefore not at all one of the cool mummies, he somehow got released from his sarcophagus, and he needs soul energy, and he can take it out of any orifice. Though he has no real dialogue (short of growls and an occasional bit of hieroglyphics) he is nevertheless given personality: The hat and boots are visual cues about this feller, he’s the worst kind of tourist. His preference for the orifice he draws out those souls shows he’s got a perverted streak, too.
The secondary cast is having a lot of fun with their characters, too. Kemosabe (Larry Pennell) is an oldster all dressed up in Lone Ranger mask and carrying twin cap gun revolvers, like some kid getting ready for his favorite black and white western show to come on TV. The Elderly Woman (Edith Jefferson) is a mean old lady who steals glasses from some poor lady in an iron lung and candy packages that weren’t sent to her, and she maybe deserves to be on the receiving end of a reckoning, but she’s got mean to spare and won’t go quietly. Even the staff have little moments to shine, especially The Nurse (Ella Joyce), who gets to verbally spar with Mr. Haff/Elvis about that little thing they have to do (longhand code for slathering some kind of cortisone cream on the growth Elvis has developed on his privates). A few jokes don’t necessarily land as funny as they might have, but no worries, there are more laughs to come.
The movie lives and dies based on the audience’s ability to laugh at jokes like that. Growths on peckers, old people discovering how their bodies are coming apart, and the immortal questions such as whether or not there is more to life than food, sex, and bowel movements. The movie has the pitch perfect level of raunchy jokes found in Lansdale’s works, an earthy sense of humor that is both crude and yet witty in its observations. Take the moment when JFK asks Elvis if he wants a Ding-Dong, then he quickly realizes this could be code for something salacious and explains, “No, a chocolate Ding-Dong,” before realizing that this is not helping his matters any with a dawning realization that his dyed-black skin, “all over” would therefore make his own Ding-Dong a chocolate one. The moment builds on a sly joke, well-conceived, and perfectly delivered.
However, the movie is not only about the laughs. It’s got a real sense about growing up, losing your way, and finding it again. It has a few things to say about never being too old to make a difference, never being too old to make a friend, and even some sober thoughts about the old bald cheater himself, Death. I never leave the finale without being moved. The first time I saw this picture, I got teary-eyed from laughing as well as from empathy. These two angles, as well as the horror plot with some creepy mood pieces, combine into a strangely shaped thing of wonder and beauty. When it was first finding its ways into theaters for a limited theatrical run (after winning plenty of acclaim from various festival venues), I hunted it down. I still bring it out regularly, and not a week goes by where Trista or I don’t quote at least one line from it.
Brian Tyler’s electronic score blends all the moods of the movie, the epic heroism, the melancholy, and the lighter touches into a fine sonic landscape that manages to invoke Elvis’s presence without ever including a single Elvis tune or even a refrain. It’s a neat trick, pairing well with the images and sounding just as good on its own.
There have never been and likely never again will be a movie like Bubba Ho-Tep, which is a shame. Even in the annals of Lansdale adaptations, it stands alone. The three seasons of Hap and Leonard (2016-2018) series get the east Texas crime (complete with buddy sense of humor and social outrage) aspects down. The film Cold In July (2014) gets the dark, dark crime stuff (leavened with character based funny lines) pretty great. The Masters of Horror episode about An Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (2005) gets the mishmash of genres (slasher flick meets human-horror crime story) just about right. And even the short film The Job (1997), gets the crime angle. However, none of them try to tackle the in your face supernatural stuff, the weirdness quotient like Bubba Ho-Tep. I am hard pressed to even find a movie with which to compare it to. Coscarelli’s subsequent adaptation of John Dies at the End (2012) comes close, but lacks the resonance (for me, anyway) of watching these two older fellows deal with the tail end of existence. However, BUBBA is easily my favorite of Coscarelli’s films, my favorite Lansdale adaptation, and may well be my favorite Mummy horror movie of all time. It often creeps into my rankings of all-time favorite flicks.
BUBBA HO-TEP is available in DVD, Blu-ray or streaming editions. The soundtrack is available on CD and streaming services. The screenplay and novella were available in a limited edition book almost over a decade ago, but copies can still be found on eBay. The novella itself is available in paperback and eBook collections as well as a standalone eBook edition and is worth the read.
Tomorrow, we check in with a special Double Feature Edition for SHOCKtober: It chapters 1 and 2! The second is in theaters currently, but the first is available in DVD, Blu-ray and streaming editions.
“SHOCKtober Movies: Bubba Ho-Tep” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and picture are taken from IMDB.