Impulse Theater: Bubba Ho-Tep
Sometimes, all it takes is a song and the right weather.
Let me see if I can explain.
The thing is, and on some level, it’s been a pretty dark time for all of us. I can only speak for myself though so let’s go through the laundry list: my dog recently died, the combination of work and telework has been utterly soul-draining, my girlfriend’s health continues to slowly deteriorate and, being in the Pacific Northwest, the gray, gloomy rain continues ever onward as winter transitions into spring. Oh, and there’s still a pandemic on. Heh…nearly forgot.
This all culminates in a feeling of helplessness in life…and an all too morbid awareness of my own mortality.
But as the story trope goes, the clouds broke here in Seattle a few days ago and it was a bright, sunny, albeit cool, spring day. And ‘The King’s Highway’ popped into my head. For those of you not familiar with the film we’re about to discuss, it’s a little rollicking guitar-driven theme from the soundtrack by Brian Tyler and serves as the main music for one Elvis Aaron Presley. We’ll get to him later. And some of the closing words of the film sprang to mind…”All is well”. True, they certainly aren’t now…but maybe someday soon, they will be. With that optimism, I knew that for this week, I needed to sit down and rewatch Don Coscarelli’s early 2000’s horror comedy, Bubba Ho-Tep.
As the story opens, I find myself in similar spirits to our lead character, Sebastian Haff…or, maybe, just maybe, Elvis Presley himself. You see, throughout the movie, we as an audience are left to question this. Is our main character telling the truth, or has he fallen prey to his delusions and latter-life mental illness? Regardless of that, Elvis’ opening here is spot on both with regards to what he’s saying and the way Coscarelli is shooting the film as Bruce Campbell delivers the opening monologue. Time passes quickly and so do the people. The stuttering nature of the shot, people speeding up, slowing down for a moment then speeding up once more, is a perfect mechanism here as it not only creates the unsettling vibe to remind the viewer that yes, this is indeed a horror film, but also what the perspective of Elvis must be at this point. Life is going on around him, but he’s been cast off, left off to the side and, what I would imagine would be even worse for a former celebrity (be it the actual King of Rock-n-Roll or a simple impersonator): forgotten.
Before I get too bogged down by the ponderances of the film, let’s at least lay out the plot. As I already mentioned, we open with Elvis in an old-folks home down in Nacogdoches, Texas. But something else is going on as an oversized scarab attacks one of the elderly residents one night and she’s wheeled out dead the next morning. When this scarab comes for the King, he goes to the one person that will listen to him, perhaps the only person crazier than he is…a black man who believes he’s actually John Fitzgerald Kennedy, survivor of the Dallas assassination attempt, dyed, with bits of his brain replaced with bags of sand. While the role is played with such gravitas by the late Ossie Davis that you can’t help but think ‘well…maaaaaaaaybe’ from time to time, ultimately his story isn’t really given the depth that Elvis’ is and, as such, always keeps the audience an arm’s length away from believing him. To get back on track here, what the two find is that there is a lost Egyptian mummy terrorizing the nursing home, feeding off the souls of the inhabitants…and it’s up to them to stop him.
If we just leave it there, “Elvis and black JFK fight a mummy”, you’ve already got enough for a pretty good horror comedy. Ultimately, though, it would be forgettable. But it’s the undercurrent of mortality, regret, the price of the choices we make in life and how it all ends up in the same place anyway, to say nothing of the difference between ‘living’ and ‘existing’ that make this a cult classic. Okay, that and the great performances, first and foremost among them being Bruce Campbell as Elvis/Sebastian. When it comes to playing Elvis, there’s always the danger of slipping into caricature, but Bruce avoids that pretty well. He also manages to avoid the comedic ham that Bruce himself is known for as an actor. Instead, we get a thoughtful portrayal of the King in his 60s and what his thoughts and regrets might have been had he lived that long. And it’s with that sincerity that we as an audience find ourselves believing that maybe the story behind why Elvis is here and the switcheroo with Sebastian Haff just might be true.
Ossie Davis, as I mentioned earlier, brings a gravitas to the proceedings, because, let’s face it…even for Elvis the plot of this movie is a little hard to swallow. Davis’ gravelly voice, occasionally laced with a Massachusetts accent, lends some weight to the story. The thing I find most interesting about his performance within the context of the film, we’re shown Elvis on one side of the spectrum, seemingly in touch with reality and just a victim of a series of unfortunate events and the minor character of Kemosabe, a resident who had completely lost touch with reality, walking around in a Lone Ranger outfit always shooting his plastic six-guns. Davis’ JFK strikes a balance here. He’s definitely at least a little crazy, as it’s pretty apparent he’s definitely not the late president, but he’s in touch with reality enough to do the leg-work for the story. He’s the one who finds out what they’re dealing with and how to stop it. Which, again, would probably indicate a little craziness, given the nature of the threat, but as Optimus Primal was always fond of saying “Sometimes, crazy works.”
Given everything I’ve said so far, what follows should not come as a surprise, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t laud the script by Coscarelli and the initial story Joe R. Lonsdale. While this could have easily turned into an enjoyable yet disposable plot-driven film, the pair keep the film rooted in the characters and they prove to be the driving force behind the pace and events. That being said, the viewer should be warned that because of this, the film is a bit of slow burn, but I think a good balance is struck between character moments and the horror elements that most of the audience is here for.
In addition, especially in a film like this, you’ve got to give a round of applause to the make-up department here. Bruce Campbell and his chin have a very distinctive look and it’s not only a testament of his performance but the make-up folks that his look is totally buy-able as the aged King. There’s a scene where it even seems like the film is pointing out the thin line they had to walk. When Sebastian Haff meets Elvis and the swap occurs…we see a very Bruce Campbell-y Elvis in Sebastian, where Bruce Campbell as Elvis looks very much, if not completely, like the King in his later days. And just a quick shout out to the costume folks, yes, they did indeed go to the folks that created the actual Elvis’ wardrobe…and it shows.
Lastly, let’s wrap up where I started…the music. Brian Tyler’s soundtrack is fantastic in doing what all the best soundtracks should do, sometimes serving to convey the dread needed in a horror film, sometimes to drive home the character moments and give a full tug on the old heartstrings, but always appropriate and never distracting. The fact that some of the music might even pop up in your head years after your last viewing, well, that’s just bonus points, isn’t it?
Bubba Ho-Tep is a great little horror comedy and very deserving of its cult classic status. It takes itself seriously while keeping tongue planted firmly in cheek. The viewer can take it at surface value or ponder the deeper themes present throughout the film. And while the former might be more fun, what gives this film its staying power is the latter. This film is better than any movie where Elvis and a black JFK fight off a mummy in an old folks home has any right to be. But why would you expect anything less from the guy that brought us Phantasm, Beastmaster and, more recently, John Dies at the End. If you haven’t seen this yet, go track it down, it’s worth it. If you have, give it a re-spin, as given the current circumstances we find ourselves in, well, it’s just a little more pertinent now than it has been for a while, serving as a reminder not only of our shared mortality, but perhaps the prod we need to remember to stop just existing and find ways to live.