2002 – USA
Director: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce
Words: Oliver Innocent
After seemingly concluding the brilliantly bizarre Phantasm franchise with 1998’s surprisingly effective Phantasm IV: Oblivion, director Don Coscarelli’s follow-up project had some rather large shoes to fill. Following up something as iconic and beloved as the Phantasm franchise definitely wasn’t going to be an easy task. What Coscarelli needed was something fresh and unique, something the likes of which had never been seen before, but would still coalesce with his own maverick style and sensibilities.
That something turned out to be a novella by writer Joe R. Lansdale about an elderly Elvis Presley (he swapped places with a tribute act who died shortly after) and JFK (they patched him up, dyed him black and abandoned him) battling an ancient soul-sucking Egyptian mummy in a retirement home. This offbeat concept seemed tailor-made for Coscarelli, a project which would indulge both his passion for horror and absurdist humour. There was, however, the small matter of deciding on an actor who could embody the aura of the King in the body of a cantankerous old man. There was only one man for the job, a man whose famous line “Hail to the King, baby” from a certain comedy-horror classic was to prove highly prophetic when he teamed up with Coscarelli. That man, of course, was Bruce Campbell, a veritable cult legend of an actor with some of the most enviable credentials in horror cinema. With Campbell on board, the scene was set for something truly special.
And special Bubba Ho-Tep most undoubtedly is. Combining the surreal, offbeat nature of Phantasm with the laugh out loud humour and signature Campbell one-liners of The Evil Dead trilogy, Bubba Ho-Tep became an instant cult classic. In many ways though, the film was something of a departure from Coscarelli and Campbell’s previous work. This is expressed most vividly in the film’s tone, which is much more akin to a bittersweet comedy drama peppered with sprinklings of horror than a straightforward fright-fest or bloodbath. Dealing with the ageing process, the film carries an inherent emotional weight tinged with a great sadness that these characters are reaching the ends of their lives. Indeed, because the film is concerned with those closest to death – the elderly – instead of the usual vivacious teens of mainstream studio efforts, their struggle against impending doom becomes all the more poignant. Espousing the positive message that just because you’re old doesn’t mean you have to give up on living, the film posits that the elderly have even more reason to fight for survival than the slasher film teens because they’ve gone through so much more beforehand. Bubba Ho-Tep never gets too maudlin though, Coscarelli and Campbell working hard to strike a nice balance between the comedy and emotion. Case in point; the scene where a nurse is applying cream to a growth on Elvis’s private parts which is both funny (it’s basically a cheap sex joke) and sad (he’s lost his independence and ability to do anything for himself anymore) at the same time.
In lesser hands Bubba Ho-Tep could have easily been depressing or just plain offensive, but with genre stalwarts Coscarelli and Campbell overseeing the proceedings it manages to simultaneously pull off horror, humour and pathos with aplomb.
It has a great monster in the form of the titular Bubba Ho-Tep, a decomposing cowboy boot-wearing, toilet graffiti-writing mummy, and a standout supporting performance from Ossie Davis as a man who believes (and who are we to say otherwise) that he’s JFK even though he’s black.
The film has proved to be a real cult favourite, its influence still being felt even today in genre efforts like the retirement community-set werewolf movie Late Phases. Part monster movie, part buddy movie, part comedy and part drama, Bubba Ho-Tep is the best Elvis vs. evil mummy movie you’ll ever see, and a damn entertaining ride to boot.