Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2008-08-04 13:40

Written by: Joe Lansdale (novella), Don Coscarelli (screenplay)
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Reggie Bannister

Reviewed by: Brett G.

"Even a big bitch cockroach like you should know... never, but never, fuck with the King."

The horror genre is built upon names, as there are certain actors, directors, franchises, and even producers that have garnered massive followings. For the most part, these are cult followings that a majority of mainstream audiences just won't understand. Perhaps two of the best examples of this are Don Coscarelli, best known as the director of the Phantasm series, and Bruce Campbell, who portrayed Ash Williams in the Evil Dead films. Thus, it should come as no surprise that horror circles began buzzing upon the announcement of a project that would unite the two in an epic entry in the aforementioned Phantasm series. Fresh off his Oscar win for his work on Pulp Fiction, screenwriter Roger Avary went to work on creating a screenplay for Phantasm 1999, which featured a part written for Campbell. Unfortunately, Coscarelli could never secure the budget needed for such an ambitious undertaking, and the project never came to fruition. However, about five years later, the dream Coscarelli/Campbell team-up was realized in the form of Bubba Ho-Tep, which is quite possibly one of the quirkiest horror films ever created; however, with the parties involved, it actually makes perfect sense.

The film features Campbell playing the King himself, Elvis Pressley, who did not die on a toilet in 1977. Instead, that infamous distinction went to Sebastian Haff, an Elvis impersonator who took The King's place when Elvis got tired of the rock and roll lifestyle. Now, years later, Elvis is leading a life full of regret and impotence in a nursing home in East Texas. Of course, no one believes his story except for an old black guy named Jack, who claims to be John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately, these aren't the only extraordinary residents at the nursing home, as an ancient Egyptian mummy has begun terrorizing the old folks. Dubbed Bubba Ho-Tep, the mummy has taken a liking to stealing the residents' souls (through their asshole, no less), and now it's up to the King and JFK to stop him.

If you can't tell, the premise of Bubba Ho-Tep is ridiculous, and the film is a horror-comedy for the most part. Most of the humor emanates from Campbell's Elvis, particularly the character's internal monologues that ponder his life and existence (particularly the possibly cancerous growth on his nether-regions). In many ways, it feels like it's not so much Campbell playing Elvis, but Campbell as Ash playing Elvis, as the character spouts one-liners and unwittingly finds himself in the position to be a hero. In terms of actual horror, the mummy itself is only featured in two sequences, but there are some nasty encounters with some scarab beetles thrown in for good measure.

The bulk of the film, however, is spent with Elvis: his thoughts, his dreams, his regrets, and his memories, and, despite the film's ridiculous premise, the character brings a lot of heart to the proceedings. It seems that Campbell is best known for his slapstick and humorous performances, but this film shows that he can play a character with emotional depth and carry the film while doing so. Elvis here actually feels like a well-rounded character who is haunted by his past and his now meaningless existence. I never thought I'd see a film that featured Elvis battling a mummy, much less a tragic, sympathetic Elvis. Furthermore, the friendship between Elvis and JFK is surprisingly strong, and you end up really caring about both characters by the end of the film. Though the film is ostensibly about Elvis's battle with the undead, you really feel like it's about the King's battle to establish a meaningful legacy for himself, and the film succeeds at this level.

In terms of direction, Coscarelli does a good job. There's some interesting stylistic techniques that show just how Elvis perceives his routine, day-to-day existence, and the film moves along at a nice pace. There are some instances where the story gets bogged down by some exposition, but the film is always interesting for the most part. Brian Tyler's musical score (particularly the film's main theme) is excellent as well, and gives the film somewhat of an epic quality. The supporting cast also gives some good performances, and genre fans will be happy to see Reggie Bannister make an appearance as an employee at the nursing home. While it isn't the Reggie/Bruce team-up we would like to have seen in a Phantasm film, their one scene here is quite a treat.

Ultimately, Bubba Ho-Tep is a bizarre film because it's both ridiculous and emotionally gripping all at once. When you hear "Bruce Campbell plays Elvis and fights a mummy," you expect a sort of over-the-top, Army of Darkness style romp, but this isn't really the case, as the film is a bit more dramatic than all that. That said, the film does have its share of humorous moments that work really well; the thing about Bubba Ho-Tep is that Coscarelli and Campbell hit all the right notes at the right times. It was a very pleasant surprise upon its release a few years ago, and a recent rewatch only strengthened my love for it. Coscarelli had planned to make a sequel, Bubba Nosferatu, but it appears that he and Campbell had some creative differences that resulted in the latter dropping out. As of right now, it would appear that the project is dead in the water, and is yet another Coscarelli-backed project (along with Phantasm V) that might only forever serve to be a tease for horror fans.

The film is available in two DVD configurations: first up is the first DVD release from 2004, which features a decent video transfer (it's not the sharpest, artifact-free transfer out there, but it's watchable), and a strong 5.1 soundtrack. There's also a host of extras, including a Campbell and Coscarelli commentary, another commentary by Campbell as "the King," deleted scenes, a host of behind the scenes featurettes, trailers, and a music video. A limited edition was released in 2007 featuring this same disc, but the package included a miniature replica of one of the King's puffy shirts worn in the film. As of this writing, both are still readily available for around fifteen bucks, and it's well worth it. Bubba Ho-Tep is everything and more you'd expect from all the parties involved, and it's quickly becoming one of my favorite films in the genre from this decade. I strongly recommend everyone to give it a look.
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