Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Bubba Ho-Tep Film Review

I have to admit something before, dear reader, you get to perusing the review: I didn’t consciously plan this. Yeah, sure, last month’s duo post book/film review was purposely positioned for the Sports segment in the ongoing AFI Top Ten arc I began back in January. This wasn’t. It’s pure blind coincidence I’m listening to Stephen King’s 11/22/63: A Novel at the moment, too, while having read/watched this month’s story/movie combo. Totally without realizing, till now, in August we’d reached the 35th milestone for a certain famous personality.

Well, maybe. The proviso is my wife regularly says I always have things churning in the back of this whacked noggin of mine. Until they bubble to the surface, I (and others) only become aware of them, that is.

So, the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I, once again, will execute another of our reviews in parallel. For the eighth month of the year, the wordy one will examine an unexpected work of fiction, this one a novella, by the sage of East Texas, Joe R. Lansdale. It was published in 1994 and originally appeared in the anthology The King Is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-Mortem. I’ll look at its film adaptation that bears the same name, Bubba Ho-Tep, and was in various film festival releases in 2002, before landing its limited U.S. run in September of 2003. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Bubba Ho-Tep by Joe R. Lansdale

A brief synopsis of the film: in the 70s, unbeknownst to all of his crazed, loyal music fans, a worn out and disillusioned Elvis Presley retired from his fame by switching identities. It was an Elvis impersonator, a Sebastian Haff, who continued his famous legacy and died an ignominious death seated on a toilet in Memphis. By the turn of the century, the real Elvis is wasting away as a senior citizen. With a bad hip, and only his memories and regrets for company, he’s slowly dying in an East Texas nursing home. However, something is afoot in ‘The Shady Rest Retirement Home’ — something strange. A lot more peculiar than the old folk wandering its dilapidated corridors. Even the resident eccentric, an aged African-American who believes he’s the-not-quite-late-John F. Kennedy, thinks so. What these two odd elders come to realize is there’s more than death loitering patiently outside their rooms, in a place where ‘long-term’ and ‘care’ are hard to come by.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

Elvis: “Ask not what your rest home can do for you. Ask what you can do for your rest home.”
JFK: “Hey, you’re copying my best lines!”
Elvis: “Then let me paraphrase one of my own. Let’s take care of business.”
JFK: “Just what are you getting at, Elvis?”
Elvis: “I think you know what I’m gettin’ at Mr. President. We’re gonna kill us a mummy.”

People of, ahem, ‘a certain age’ will recognize the following question and instantly, through the beguiling properties of memory, place themselves right there:

Where were you the day Elvis died?

Me? I was driving east on Interstate 10 (otherwise known as the Santa Monica Freeway in these parts), approaching the 110 (State Route 110, still the Harbor Freeway for us old folk) near downtown, when the news came over my car’s FM dial. Like everyone else I know (namely, those already passed the age of 40), I merely sat there (though moving at 55 mph). Stunned. Watching this comedy/horror movie for the first time Sunday night (though I’ve long had the DVD in my video library for more than two years), seemed to bring all that sentiment back.

Sometimes, as a viewer of movies, you run into a little, almost nothing (budget-wise), picture. Somehow though, it just strikes a profound chord in you. A film that’s the epitome of untraditional fare in almost every sense. Not a production geared with big, star-studded names guaranteed to gather the eyes of film critics and moviegoers alike (or focus group-vetted story concepts or aspirations of Oscar dancing in studio executives skulls). But one with an honest-to-goodness original idea in its head that simultaneously tugs at something you thought you’d outgrown, and had something astute to say. It just did it cloaked in the rags of a genre film. That would describe Don Coscarelli‘s Bubba Ho-Tep to a tee.

It was this director, the same guy associated with one of the most notable and bizarre horror films of the 70s, Phantasm, who thought this would work as a film. Joe Lansdale’s tale of redemption for his bygone heroes, Elvis and JFK, the pair who met ignoble ends no one either expected nor wished upon, who’d do undaunted battle with a cowboy boot-wearing mummy. To say the concept was a stretch for any film producer, no matter their mental stability, to give the green light to, was an understatement. But, someone did, and for some outlandish reasons, it worked. And, you don’t have to have a personal stake with either icon for it to do so (though, the movie will mean more if they do).

“That’s what they brought us here for. To get us out of the way until we die. And those that don’t die first by disease, or just plain being old, he gets.”

There’s no getting around the fact that Bubba Ho-Tep has an inane spirit to it (figuratively and literally). Even with a shoestring budget, Coscarelli made that an asset in the production. Heck, since the horror yarn takes place in and around a nursing home, with all the depressingly real baggage that goes with such a dire place — anyone living in the United States is only too well aware (okay, probably not Mitt Romney) — how could it not? Then, to have it host two figures, people we wouldn’t, couldn’t, imagine in such a spot (before or even after pivotal events of history), well, you end up with a marvelous clash of celebrity and culture, if you thought about it. Boggles the mind, alright.

The other factor in the film’s favor, clearly, was a cast that made it… I can’t say tenable…but certainly f-a-b-u-l-o-u-s. There, I said it. And the standout was a cult film icon (and I’m quoting here for effect, but meaning it) that made it so…

“Bruce Campbell in a performance for the ages…” ~ David Hunter, The Hollywood Reporter

The character actor made famous in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy remains one Hell of a comedic performer. He’s the stuff of movie legend for many of us. To say nothing of Bruce‘s prowess with the ‘chin’ and sheer wrecking physicality he puts on the screen (small and large). No one, and I mean no one, could have pulled off this character the way he did. Especially one so wistfully imagined (with cancerous sore on that famed pecker, to boot) by Joe Lansdale. A rebirthed Elvis primed for reclamation, and that’s what brought an unanticipated poignancy for many who’ve seen his filmed tale. The sentiments captured in Coscarelli’s adaptation thoroughly replicated the author’s, and encapsulated for himself and those who grew up with the man and his music, a sublime second chance at absolution. Quoting from the novella:

“I discovered that I really was pissed at how he had treated himself. How he had ended his life. He was a poor Southern boy like me, and he had risen to heights of fame that were beyond understanding. He had it made. He could have had anything he wanted and lived anyway he wanted, and he ended up living like trailer trash in a great mansion on a hill, mooning about the death of his mother, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried no less, packing on pounds, freezing up his colon, swelling his heart, looking at people fuck through a mirrored wall, taping it for his entertainment. … Shit, how the mighty had fallen.” ~ Joe R. Lansdale

Perhaps, I’m being too appreciative here. I’ve been on that kind of kick lately. But, this little comedy/horror mashup did a lot of things right. I mean, having the well-regarded Ossie Davis as Jack Kennedy was inspired casting, and brought some dignity to a character who may or may not be who they believe they are. So, too, was including Coscarelli/Phantasm regular Reggie Bannister as the nursing home administrator, along with the ‘Inside Baseball’ wink of using Harrison Young, the same guy who portrayed the older James Ryan in Saving Private Ryan, as Elvis’ WWII vet roommate not long for this world. Ella Joyce certainly stood out for “that little thang, again” scene alone, along with providing the shadings of someone still with a bit of humanity and respect left in her care-providing for those on the receiving end.

Oh heck, all the supporting cast provided opportune humor throughout the film. What was surprising, though, were those moments of gravitas and heart, done at the right times, some would think wasn’t necessary for a lowly thing as a genre piece. Yet, they were. Bringing over much of Lansdale’s story dialogue (including the Egyptian hieroglyph curse words) was an added plus, along with the visuals the filmmaker incorporated that helped build-out the author’s main character and backstory. Bubba Ho-Tep, with its scenes of crazed and frenetic physical stunt work (fans will surely spot the Coscarelli- and Raimi-toned aesthetic in its action sets — flying scarab beetles anyone?) is difficult to truly define as a movie experience. IMDB reviewer michiman_7 may have described it best though:

“Take your pick of one or all: Drama. Horror. Comedy. Tear Jerker. Life Lesson.”

It’s rare for a movie, one where the hero (or heroes) ultimately dies, that it results into anything close to joy. Here, it did. Nothing and no one is truly disposable. The payoff, besides the sheer creativeness of the story idea and the ingenuity of delivering it for pennies on the dollar, is the moviegoer (at least, this one) cared for those up on the screen. The added benefit, again for those old enough, was a chance to revisit, and revise, an event and a person that meant something, musically and culturally, for us who grew up during a certain time. B-grade picture or not. And for that, all I can say is,

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

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23 Responses to “Bubba Ho-Tep Film Review”

  1. Morgan R. Lewis

    Saw this a few years ago with my father. Both of us thought it was a lot of fun. Campbell and Davis are great in it, and I also like the old guy who thought he was the Lone Ranger, just determinedly shooting it out until his last breath. Funny, weird, charming… a very good film.

    Your review is great… showcases a lot of what makes the film great, and adds some nice personal touches to it. Since I’m of a generation that came after Elvis’s death, I guess it didn’t really occur to me how much odder the premise would be to someone who had lived through that. Obviously I was aware neither JFK nor Presley would really be in a retirement home, but I don’t have that “I was here, when that happened” connection.

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    • le0pard13

      Great to hear you and father saw and enjoyed this film, Morgan. The Lone Ranger senior had a heroic aspect to him (and was portrayed well in the novella, too). I was surprised how much this connected with me on the level it did. Many thanks, my friend.

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    • le0pard13

      It’s a great one, Mark. Like Morgan said,

      “Funny, weird, charming… a very good film.”

      I hope you get a chance to take it in. Many thanks, my friend.

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  2. gemmahawkins

    Yes! I love this movie! It’s one of my favourite Bruce Campbell films. Aside from being very funny, I found it to be really sweet in a strange way. And I thought it was actually very empowering to people that are very often stuck in rest homes, forgotten by society.

    I had no idea that it was based on a book though! I’m shocked at this. But I’m going to have to go and buy it now to complete the experience.

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome, gemma. And you make a good point about how empowering this film was. The novella is a fun read. Joe Lansdale does have a way with his storytelling. It’s very distinct (as my partner Rachel refers below). Many thanks for reading and the comment.

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  3. Rachel

    A simply brilliant review here, Michael! Mucho kudos to you!

    You won’t believe this but this movie was campier than I expected. Yeah! See? Knew you wouldn’t believe that! :) I knew the premise, read the short story first, knew the title was BUBBA HO-TEP and yet it was still campier than I expected. Except for what I have affectionately deemed the “ick factor” I found the story so touching and sad that I think I started taking it very seriously. Yeah, I know, what the heck, right? I was taking a story very seriously that featured a booted mummy and Elvis in a rest home. What can I say? I think I really connected with the age of the characters and the hero’s journey they were both going through. I am not that age but something going on in my own family made the emotional aspects of the story very personal to me. So, for me, I found the tone of the film slightly off from the tone of the story.

    Notwithstanding what I wrote above, I thought it was a wonderful adaptation. I also loved the soundtrack.

    I found the Elvis’ anger and helplessness much more visceral in the story than in the movie. How ’bout you?

    Again, a really fantastic review! Thanks for getting this one on our list.

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Rachel. It is a heartfelt story, alright. Good point that it’s a journey story, too. As well, I could relate with those living, existing, there in the nursing home. Perhaps, my age made it so. It certainly did on the experience level cause the real persons had meaning while I grew up. Wonderful adaptation of the material. I thought Coscarelli’s exposition scenes of Elvis coming to the impersonator’s abode were wonderful. Yes, the Elvis emotional state was more explicit in the novella — visceral is an apt descriptor. Thank you very much, Rachel. Glad this one struck a chord for both of us.

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  4. Mummbles

    As I think I mentioned before I was so glad I was able to see this movie in the theater more then once. I mainly went to see it because Bruce Campbell was in it, like you said I think this was possibly his best performance as an actor. The crowd was really into the movie and that made it all the better for me. It has been a while since I;ve seen this small yet great movie that I may just have to pop my dvd in and rewatch this hidden gem of a film. Thanks for the write up and hopefully getting more people to see this movie!

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    • le0pard13

      This must have been something to watch in a darkened theater, mummbles. And with a receptive audience, that must have been even better. It is a hidden gem of the movie. Yeah, I hope others give this film a chance. It deserves more viewership. Many thanks, my friend.

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  5. ruth

    Interesting, Michael, not exactly my cup of tea but I might alert my friend who’s been in a Bruce Campbell kick since Burn Notice. I bet she’d see this one in no time if she hasn’t already. Happy Labor day, my friend!

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    • le0pard13

      I know you’re not into horror, but this is beyond that description. Its aspects of comedy and drama is more prevalent in the story. I hope your friend gets to see it (and you, maybe ;-)). Happy Labor Day and my thanks, Ruth.

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  6. J.D.

    Excellent review for this memorable film. Watching this again recently served as potent reminder that Coscarelli needs to direct more films! Such a talent – love what he did with the PHANTASM films.

    It’s a shame that he and Campbell couldn’t see eye-to-eye on the proposed BUBBA NOSFERATU film… even with Paul Giamatti agreeing to be in it. Oh well…

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks, J.D. Yes, Coscarelli needs to do more films! I agree, too, that it was a shame Bruce and him “… couldn’t see eye-to-eye on the proposed BUBBA NOSFERATU film“. Those two really helped make this tale something special and it would have been great to have them collaborate again.

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