Should I Watch..? 'Bubba Ho-Tep'
What's the big deal?
Bubba Ho-Tep is a comic horror film produced in 2002 which was written and directed by Don Coscarelli. The film is a low-budget adaptation of a novella of the same name written by Joe R. Lansdale and follows a now-retired Elvis Presley battle against a soul-sucking mummy in his nursing home with the help of a friend who is convinced he is JFK. The film stars Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis as well as several cast members from Coscarelli's Phantasm series including Bob Ivy, Reggie Bannister and Heidi Marnhout. The movie was shown at numerous film festivals before finally getting a theatrical release in 2004 after receiving much critical praise previously. Despite only earning $1.2 million in the US, Coscarelli has been trying to produce a sequel ever since as the film has become something of a cult hit among fans.
What's it about?
In the Shady Rest retirement home in East Texas, an elderly man known as Sebastian Haff has an interesting story. He claims to be the actual Elvis Presley who grew tired of fame and fortune in the 70s and switched places with an impersonator called Sebastian Haff. But since the impersonator died in 1977 and the paperwork proving the story has been destroyed, he is now stuck in the nursing home in quiet anonymity and facing the prospect of his increasing age, frailty and a strange growth on his penis. His only friend in the home—and the only one who believes his story—is Jack, an African American resident who believes that he is actually JFK.
As the days go by, a mysterious presence appears at Shady Rest after a violent thunderstorm. Having been stolen from a museum touring the US, a mummy manages to escape his captors and makes his way to the rest home, feeding on the elderly residents there. Realising that nobody is going to take them seriously, it soon falls to Elvis and JFK to face the danger alone - but what can they do when neither of them can walk very far without pausing for breath?
Elvis Presley / Sebastian Haff
John "Jack" F. Kennedy
Release Date (UK)
8th October, 2004
Comedy, Fantasy, Horror
What's to like?
Even the name should be enough to tell you that this is like no other movie out there with its demented but ingenious concept. Bubba Ho-Tep is a truthfully joyous experience because you're almost laughing at yourself for watching it in the first place. Without the two central performances, this would stagger towards Uwe Boll territory but Davis and Campbell give their roles their absolute everything. As far fetched as their stories are, you almost want to believe them because both of them are so likeable and charming. Campbell delivers possibly the performance of his career, a subtle impersonation of Elvis in a state we've never seen before but one which feels completely plausible.
As strange as it may be to say, the film gets really weird when the mummy turns up to threaten Elvis and JFK's fellow residents. The creature is largely seen in silhouette which is a wise decision given the minuscule budget of the picture. It may be a cheap way of disguising the budget but in an odd way, it reinforces the film's indie credentials and feeling. After all, I can't imagine any major studio bar The Asylum agreeing to finance a film as bonkers as this but that only makes me love it even more. It is just so unique and utterly fun that you can't help but enjoy it.
- Although Elvis is the main character, not one piece of his music or one clip of his movies are featured in the film. Coscarelli explained that to do so, it would have cost half of the film's budget for just one song. It's estimated that the film's budget was just over $500'000 or about 1% of your average Hollywood blockbuster.
- Campbell helped to promote the movie while he was on a book tour promoting his own autobiography, 'If Chins Could Kill: Confessions Of A B-Movie Actor'. Before he accepted the role, Campbell's only concern was whether Coscarelli intended to show Campbell's penis on screen.
- Elvis' roommate is a WW2 veteran awarded the Purple Heart played by Harrison Young. Interestingly, Young also played a WW2 veteran in Saving Private Ryan although there's no suggestion that there are the same character.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, there are some things that aren't disguised that well. Bubba Ho-Tep makes some decisions that it was always going to struggle to deliver such as the flying scarab beetles which never look like anything other that glove puppets stuck to the bottom of the camera lens as they chase their prey. It looks silly and surely a film-maker as experienced as Coscarelli must have realised this. For a moment there, I was wondering whether Coscarelli was undermining his own film - is he trying to make a legitimate horror film by including these scarabs or is he trying to illustrate just how silly it all is? It just took me out of the movie's intoxicating spell.
The problem with horror-comedies is that they are too funny to scare or too frightening to amuse. Certainly Bubba Ho-Tep is funny in places, especially with Campbell's uncanny portrayal of the King, but it isn't that scary a horror film if I'm being honest. Frankly, it's a much more interesting picture without the mummy in it - I wanted to spend as much time as I could with these two captivating characters. I didn't care that the film is as ridiculous as they come, there was a part of me that wanted to believe them and the mummy seemed to detract from that. Can we instead have a prequel detailing the origins of both Elvis and Jack or have them engaged in a battle of wits with their nurse, Cuckoo's Nest-style?
Should I watch it?
Bubba Ho-Tep is a horror film for people who don't like horror. It's a remarkably odd and unusual picture with a premise that defies both belief and expectation. But thanks to the sheer charm of the film as well as the winning performances from Davis and Campbell in particular, the film is a deliciously demented slice of a twisted imagination that enthralls and amuses in equal measure. Anyone expecting a genuine horror or even B-movie mayhem may find themselves disappointed but as something virtually unique in cinema, I feel it should be treasured and enjoyed in equal measure.
Great For: horror newbies, anyone tired of the mainstream, Elvis fans, the stoned or drunk
Not So Great For: fans of Phantasm, anyone unable to suspend disbelief, conspiracy theorists
What else should I watch?
There are a few films that attempt the lunacy of the premise of Bubba Ho-Tep, with admittedly limited success. Take the likes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter which sees the 16th President of the USA indulge his secret identity as a slayer of the fanged undead. Taking its silly premise far too seriously, the film was an uneven clash of tones which audiences weren't impressed by. More successful was Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters which depicted a grown-up pair of siblings now working as a violent pair of witch-finders. Although critics weren't impressed, the film was more successful with audiences who enjoyed the film's blend of action and parody.
Mummies, compared to vampires at least, seem to have avoided the attention of Hollywood for the most part as the number of mummy movies is greatly reduced. The most recent attempt, 2017's The Mummy, saw Tom Cruise try to create a new franchise for Universal by leading into a series of films that brought back their classic horror characters for a modern audience. But the film was a disaster with some critics calling it the worst film of Cruise's long career as it lacked the camp adventure and fun of the previous Mummy series which started in 1999. With Brendan Fraser in full-Indiana Jones mode, The Mummy and its sequels were loosely inspired by the original 1932 production that helped make Boris Karloff a horror icon. Besides the odd appearance in Hammer horrors or a comedy alongside Abbott and Costello, mummies rarely seem to be the monster of choice for film-makers. Probably because vampires are cheaper to portray...
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