The cult of Don Coscarelli’s “Bubba Ho-Tep” is growing.
I recall seeing the 2002 film by myself at the majestic Mayan Theatre in Denver, Colo. I was the only one in the theater.
Being an audience of one during a comedy always presents an odd problem. I’d laugh out loud and wonder, am I the only one who finds this funny? Apparently, hardcore fans of “Bubba Ho-Tep [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” would agree the film is funny and agreeably weird enough to merit its cult classic status.
Coscarelli’s film is both too motley for its own good and as what-we-worry weird as it should be. When your premise is Geriatric Elvis and JFK vs. a Soul Sucking Mummy, who needs subtlety?
In a performance that rises above mere impersonation, Bruce Campbell plays Elvis Presley as a bedridden, far past-his-prime “King.” Living in a low-rent rest home, he spends his days trying (among other things) to conjure an erection for his nurse. He is both amusing and pathetic.
The story of how he got there is recalled in a golden flashback, involving an identity swap too clever to give away. Elvis meets JFK, or a man who thinks he’s the assassinated president, played by the late, great Ossie Davis.
FAST FACT: “Bubba Ho-Tep” earned $1.2 million at the U.S. box office.
The two team up to defeat the “Egyptian soul sucker” who has been stealing the lives of those around them. Despite their struggle to move around (Elvis uses a walker and JFK is in a wheelchair), they bravely face a creature who embodies the eventual death they strive to defeat with each passing day.
The performances are the best thing here and often rise above determination of the screenplay to remain pulpy. Campbell and Davis couldn’t be more different, in both their careers and approaches to acting. Their contrasting qualities fit perfectly as both show a keen understanding of their characters.
Not everything in “Bubba Ho-Tep” works but, of all things, Coscarelli gives us a great actor’s showcase. Davis’ work is inventively strange and oddly dignified under the circumstances. While Kurt Russell’s multiple cinematic embodiments of The King remain definitive, Campbell gets under the skin of a regretful, tarnished living legend.
A great touch in Coscarelli’s screenplay (adapted from a story by Joe R. Lansdale) is how we’re never sure whether Campbell’s Presley is the real deal or a deranged Presley impersonator with dreams of grandeur.
Likewise, JFK’s reasoning for his identify is absurd (“they dyed me this color!”). Yet, in this film’s oddball universe (and a telling reveal that this JFK has a bullet wound in the back of his head), you wonder if this JFK and Elvis really are who they think they are. Either way, the nod to Don Quixote is an angle that resonates.
Campbell gets under the skin of a regretful, tarnished living legend.
“Bubba Ho-Tep” is a crass but spirited commentary on how the mind tends to embrace fanciful, wishful thinking near the end of a long life. Elvis and JFK may be out of their minds but the pathos in the performances and the sympathetic nature of the characters burns through the campiness.
However, while Quixote and Sancho Pazo fought windmills they believed to be dragons, Elvis and JFK fight an ancient Egyptian evil, who leaves threatening hieroglyphic graffiti in the Men’s Room.
If that last sentence strikes you as too stupid to take seriously, this is not your movie.
Coscarelli’s films tend to be black comedies about death. His “Phantasm” films and the recent “John Dies At The End” in particular both exploit and tease the clinical, existential and physical horrors of dying.
As with the Perigord Mortuary in “Phantasm,” Coscarelli once again has a setting in which his characters are surrounded by the presence of those who are dying and will soon be among the deceased. The camera’s slow glide down the rest home hallways is similar to the tracking shots in the “Phantasm” morgue. Unfortunately, not every visual nuance on display works.
FAST FACT: Don Coscarelli has a script for “Bubba Nosferatu” ready to roll, but the project has hit a snag. Bruce Campbell, for starters, isn’t committed to it (yet).
The use of sped up footage, flash cuts and aggressive edits become irritating and don’t add up to much. Oddly enough, Coscarelli’s film is needlessly stylish at times. While the themes and subtext here have immediacy, “Bubba Ho-Tep” mostly comes across resembling a silly goof.
Coscarelli gives the film some needed zip but it still appears cheap. The central monster looks an awful lot like the heavy of “House II: The Second Story” (not a huge complaint, as this shares that movie’s go-for-it B-movie entertainment value).
A bigger problem is that Campbell’s make-up as the elderly King of Rock N’ Roll is too pancake-heavy and the sets are not merely thrift store worthy but ugly. Another visible, if somewhat excusable, example of the film’s tiny budget: there are no Elvis songs or views of his real likeness.
The multi-genre hybrid that Coscarelli made afterwards, “John Dies At The End,” is a much better film. Yet, it must be said that both that film and “Bubba Ho-Tep,” have a “Buckaroo Banzai”-creator Earl Mac Rauch touch of being refreshingly unpredictable and never playing it safe.
Although the film’s overall impression is somewhat mixed, there are great scenes. When Elvis takes on a swooping bug, the sequence has an “Evil Dead” energy. The King’s hallway encounter with the title monster is thrilling in its staging and is Coscarelli’s best fusion of low budget know-how and genuine vision.
The Scream Factory Blu-ray special edition has ample extras that nod to the film’s oddball appeal. The always chatty and blunt Campbell is great at recalling the film’s origins and production. There’s an essential commentary from Coscarelli and Campbell, as well as a commentary track by Campbell in character as The King. This latter extra, as well as others on the loaded disc, will work best for the film’s die-hard fans.
Coscarelli’s fans may argue where the film ranks in his eclectic, winningly uncompromised list of independently made films. For me, it’s too inconsistent to be deemed a genre masterpiece. Yet, when Campbells’ King is explaining to “Phantasm” star Reggie Bannister that he encountered a bug “the size of a peanut butter and banana sandwich,” I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Bubba Ho-Tep [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” is as weird as any plot description offers but, at its best, there’s a genuine heart at the center of this very strange concoction.