Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Directed by Don Coscarelli

“In the end, does anything really matter?”

Why Did I Get This?

As previously discussed in one of the very first Late Reviews, I really like Bruce Campbell, so when I heard he was playing an elderly Elvis Presley doing battle with a mummy in an old folks’ home, I was on board immediately.

I later realised it was from the creator of Phantasm too, which was a film I’d enjoyed the imagery of, but never been particularly fussed about despite watching it on multiple occasions. Something about the mood of the piece and the visuals worked though, so I had pretty high hopes going into this one.

In a suitable nod to the king’s former stomping ground, I actually bought the DVD on a trip to Las Vegas in 2004 (fun, but thankfully nothing like the one discussed in a previous Late Review), and watched it a couple of times on my return. Sadly, my current player won’t entertain US discs, so I’ve had to watch it elsewhere and miss out on the wealth of extras the disc has to offer (including an in-character commentary by ‘Elvis’, which I remember enjoying all those years ago), but them’s the breaks, I guess.

Late Review

As always, the Late Review will cover the film in some depth, so you can expect spoilers below – scroll straight to the next heading to avoid them!

Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of Sebastian Haff – an elderly man living in a Texas nursing home who is really Elvis Presley, having switched places with an impersonator to live a quiet life when fame became too much for him. When the residents start dying in suspicious circumstances, he teams up with Jack – a Black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy – to discover the secret behind the deaths… an ancient Egyptian mummy.

After title cards explaining Bubba is a slang term for a ‘redneck’ or ‘Good ol’ boy’, and mocked up vintage news footage of a mummy being discovered, we’re introduced to Mud Creek old folks’ home in Texas – all dingy, dark, mildewey corridors and a Sepia wash that really add to the worn-out feel of the film.

Add to these visuals an introductory voiceover from Elvis/Sebastian describing the unpleasant boil on his genitals, and we’re immediately immediately given a clear message that this isn’t going to be a daft, knockabout comedy.

The mood is melancholy. The residents are stewing in their old age, just circling the drain and seeing out their last days, contemplating their lives and their deaths, wondering what, if anything, they’ll leave behind.

It’s an interesting point for what’s ostensibly a horror movie to make, and the “who gives a shit” response from a funeral home employee when asked about what kind of a legacy the old people leave behind them really hits the nail on the head.

Society has written off these old people. Their stories are tolerated but treated with amusement. They’re neither threat nor use. They’re just taking up a bed until their heart beats its last, then whichever family member lives closest will call by and empty out their wardrobe and give their belongings to Goodwill. It’s not a subtle commentary of how society views the elderly, but it’s not too far from the mark.

Jumping ahead, it’s only through the determination of Elvis and Jack that the mummy is destroyed and the souls of the residents at the nursing home are safe. They’re scared, but they’re standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves (in some cases, literally), because it’s the right thing to do and despite being told they should just get back into bed and have a nap. They use little talismans which belonged to their fallen friends to give them the edge they need in the final fight because they respect the bravery of those who lived their lives and died needlessly.

And while it paints our heroes as, well, heroes, the film also does a nice job in reminding us that some of the other elderly residents just… aren’t. Case in point, one of the earliest victims of the mummy is an old lady who approaches a resident confined to an iron lung, then steals her glasses and a box of chocolates. Just because they’re old, doesn’t mean they’re saints – but it doesn’t mean they deserve to lose their souls either.

Because that’s what this mummy does – it sucks out the soul of its victims for nourishment, preventing them from moving on to whatever afterlife there might be. The idea that the nursing home is an ideal feeding ground for the mummy due to the revolving door of “small souls” is a great touch too – old people don’t have much lifeforce left, but there’ll be a never-ending supply and they’ll be too weak to put up a fight, so they’re easy prey for the villain.

In terms of filmmaking, Coscarelli has a few nice tricks up his sleeve too, and uses his budget to his advantage. Like Phantasm, we’ve got a lot of long corridors being used and reused, only without violent little silver spheres barrelling down them to murder people. These murky corridors and rooms make for a dank, joyless setting, so you take any bright spot of humour you can – whether that’s a bitter one-liner from the king, or a smart-alecky response from Jack, it makes you appreciate the characters more.

There’s also a nice touch where we see the passing of time through Elvis’ position in bed with the use of speeded up/timelapse footage, indicating the relentless routine of his waking hours in the early section of the film. Between these moments, we largely get his thoughts in voiceover – he’s trapped in his bed, in this home, with a festering boil on his pecker that he’s named after his ex-wife, and all he can do is think about better times. Times when he had it all and gave it all up to experience real life and a little anonymity, only to lose his only way back to life as the biggest star in the world thanks to a barbecuing mishap.

Also, in the grand old spirit of classic monster movies, we get a couple of great stunts in the final battle with the mummy, including an upper-body burn followed a few minutes later by a full-body burn, both of which look great on camera in the dark. As Elvis himself puts it…

“The two key words for tonight are caution and flammable.”

As for the mummy itself, it’s a creation by the legendary KNB Effects and as you’d expect from the designers of many of The Walking Dead’s zombies, it looks pretty gnarly, even if the horror is offset by its cowboy apparel.

Wisely, it’s mostly presented in shadows, save for a few close-ups, and while that definitely adds to its menace, it’s fair to assume there’s a budgetary reason for that too. I don’t know how well any of these creatures would turn out in bright lights, but it’s a smart move. In fact, the brightest shot of the mummy features it being lit heavily from behind by strobes as it approaches Elvis down a corridor in another nice Coscarelli touch, creating a pretty great and easily-identifiable silhouette.

The flashbacks to Elvis’ life as Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff also reveal the film’s budgetary limitations – it’s a fair bet that licensing a song from the Presley estate would account for the lion’s share of the funding, so whenever we see Haff performing, it’s generic rock music and Campbell pulling some karate moves, rather than a track we know. And that’s fair enough – for me, it adds to the slightly off-kilter look at the world that the movie presents. One step sideways from reality, just identifiable enough, without being too concerned about accuracy.

That being said, Campbell makes for a decent Elvis impersonator – he’s got the voice down pat, and the moves too. Even as his old, fragile body betrays his will and he cuts the figure of an elderly man trying to fight like a younger martial arts enthusiast, you buy it.

The scene where Elvis visits Haff to exchange lives is really nicely done too (watch for the crumbs of blueberry pie helping the viewer keep track of the switch), with the real king giving off an aura and electrifying the room as he enters behind the impersonator, who responds in silent awe to his idol’s arrival.

He also utilises a few of the pratfalls and physical tricks he honed for Sam Raimi in his action scenes. Though they’re at a much slower pace due to the character’s age, Campbell commits totally to the bit, throwing himself around whether battling with a giant scarab beetle or an undead Egyptian baddie.

Ossie Davis is great too, elevating what could have been a throwaway sidekick role to earn joint top billing. He doesn’t imitate JFK’s vocal mannerisms, but his earnest dignity almost makes you believe the CIA put a bag of sand in his skull, dyed his skin black and left him in an old folk’s home to die after that fateful day in Dallas.

It’s also a great move to have given Elvis someone to talk to – the voiceover works fine, but by having the pair share a mutual respect and team up to take on the undead, it ups the stakes and tees up a nice gag with Elvis asking what things were like between JFK and Marilyn Monroe…

“That is classified information. But between you and me? Wow.”

Jack is the brains of the outfit, essentially the Giles to Campbell’s Buffy – keeper of books like ‘The Everyday Man Or Woman’s Book Of The Soul’, and discoverer of hieroglyph graffiti in the wall of a toilet stall that helps them work out what’s going on, but it’s some detective work by Elvis and a passing connection with the mummy that helps clear up the exact details.

Now, I’m no expert on Egyptian calligraphy or hieroglyphs – and from what I’m told, we mere humans are not supposed to know what it says. It wasn’t meant for us, just priests and gods. That being said, I’m pretty sure this one has been designed with tongue firmly in cheek for the film…

Later, the final thing Elvis sees following his self-sacrificial battle with the mummy, is a message from the stars to let him know how he did…

So as our hero dies, he dies knowing he’s saved the souls of the current and future residents of his care home, but also that he’s leaving this plane to whatever afterlife follows safe in the knowledge that he retained his own soul too, and his final words make for an immortal sign-off…

“Thank you… thank you very much.”

Verdict

I mean, it’s Bruce Campbell playing old Elvis teaming up with Black JFK to fight a mummy in an old folks’ home – what’s not to love?

That being said, it’s not really a film about a mummy. It’s a thoughtful meditation on regret, legacy, dignity, self-worth and the passage of time. It’s about being human, ageing, life and death, courage and strength.

It just also happens to be about Elvis and JFK fighting a mummy.

If that sounds like I’m giving it too much credit, by all means watch it and tell me if you think I’m wrong – obviously, it’s not The Seventh Seal, and it’s not subtle with its messaging, but anyone expecting this to be a wacky, cheesy Bruce Campbell romp will likely be disappointed.

Of the two Bruce Campbell films I’ve watched for Late Reviewer, I’m pretty sure this is the one I’ll revisit most often – as much as I respect Man With The Screaming Brain, this is a better film in my opinion.

It’s easy to find, and I reckon it’s well worth a watch.

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