Movies We Like
One of the most magical theatrical experiences I ever had was catching a super advance screening of Bubba Ho-Tep at an event that star Bruce Campbell had attended to intro his most famous feature film, The Evil Dead. Bruce brought it along as the surprise first half of a double bill and, for the unsuspecting audience, we had no idea of the absurd, scary and hilarious ride that we were in for. I often wondered if this experience skewed my love of the film more toward the favorable because of the whole night surrounding it, but I have since revisited the movie numerous times and I still love it just as much as the first time I’d seen it, if not even more!
It opens with a title crawl that gives us the following definitions:
1. Relative or descendent of the 17 Egyptian Dynasties, 3100-1500 B.C.
2. Family surname of an Egyptian pharaoh (king)
1. Male from the Southern U.S.
2. Good ole boy
3. Cracker, red neck, trailer park resident
We then meet Elvis Presley aka Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campebell) at an old folks home in Eastern Texas where his roommate Bull is practically choking himself to death in the next bed over. He serves as our narrator and seems frustrated in his old age that he’s unable to do anything. Plus, there’s a strange growth on his…well, private part, that he’s convinced is some kind of cancer. What no one seems to believe is that Sebastian is in fact the real Elvis Presley, the king of rock n’ roll. Fed up with his lifestyle, Elvis tracked down Sebastian Haff, the best Elvis impersonator in the country and agreed to switch places with him so that he could live a humble, simple life again. There’s a great moment where we see the two meet in a flashback sequence where Sebastian is gorging himself with blueberry pie, foreshadowing Elvis’ weight increase later in his life. And once the real Elvis settles into his new life as Sebastian he begins performing as an impersonator and, for the first time in ages, actually has fun doing music again. That is until that one fateful night when his hip gave in and he fell off the stage, causing him to go into a coma and never fully recover.
The only person at the retirement home who believes that Sebastian is in fact the real Elvis is Jack Kennedy, aka JFK played with serious perfection by the late, great Ossie Davis. As Elvis points out, “Um, Jack, President Kennedy was a white man.” His reply? “They dyed me this color! That’s how clever they are!”
Despite all this, an ancient evil mummy has awoken and is slowly sucking the souls of the old people at the retirement home through their ass holes. Let that statement sink in for a minute. OK, so there was an old mummy being transported across the country to various museums for display. But one rainy night, the truck transporting him runs off the road and his tomb and curse are broken. It’s also the perfect cover – he stumbles at night into the old folks home, feeds on one of the residents, continues to gain his strength and everyone there just assumes that the people are dying of natural causes. At one point, Jack has an encounter with him and is convinced it’s actually President Johnson trying to “finish the job.” But once Elvis also encounters the Bubba Ho-Tep, the pair decide to team up and destroy this evil mummy force before it kills them and the entire rest home.
Man, oh man. As Bruce Campbell said when he first introduced the movie at that screening, “this is a real sicko movie. You guys are going to love it!” And he wasn’t kidding. It’s easily one of the most bizarre premises to ever grace the silver screen, but at the same time, the level of witty humor and originality makes it so endearing. And although it’s helmed by Don Coscarelli, the director and creator of the Phantasm series, it’s actually based on a short story by famed cult author Joe R. Lansdale. When Coscarelli optioned the screen rights to the story, even Lansdale thought he was crazy! But somehow he adapted it beautifully into one of the best cult movies you’ll likely ever see.
Also, who in their right mind would ever think that Bruce Campbell’s finest performance as an actor would be his portrayal of a 70-year old Elvis Presley?! But it is, in fact, the best acting he’s ever done and nothing he’s worked on since has come close to just how good he is here. Bless Ossie Davis for agreeing to do this silly movie. His portrayal of John F. Kennedy is not only hilarious, but the straightforward method in which he plays it almost makes us believe that maybe they did dye the president’s skin color and hide him in an East Texas home! There’s one bit where he says, “I just got off the phone with the woman who claims to be my niece” which while funny, almost shows us just how much he believes his own story.
Last but not least, one of the greatest characters in the film is Bubba Ho-Tep’s score by Bryan Tyler. Obviously, they couldn’t license actual Elvis Presley music for a low budget independent picture like this, but the music during any of the rockin’ scenes more than suffices. But more importantly, Tyler’s haunting, melancholia theme for Elvis is so darned beautiful, it makes me tear up every time. Despite the silly premise or idea of Elvis and a black JFK teaming up to fight an ancient mummy, the real heart of the story is the disrespect we show to our elderly and how we never take them seriously enough. Early on, Elvis’ roommate Bull passes away and his daughter Callie is cleaning out all his stuff. She picks up his purple heart and goes to throw it in the garbage before Elvis asks if he can keep it. In the two years that poor Bull was in the rest home, Callie never came to visit him once. It’s a heartbreaking scene to hear how cold she can be regarding her father and Elvis lays on the guilt, but later he stares down at Bull’s purple heart and thinks, “what the hell does it matter anyways?” To me, it's moments like these that make Bubba Ho-Tep something far more than its somewhat ridiculous premise.