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Bubba Ho-Tep

TIFF [2002]Go to Festival index

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(USA 2002)
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli
Based upon a short story by Joe R. Lansdale
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Reggie Bannister

Any long-time sufferers of the Herz/Kaufman trenches knows that crafting a “cult” film is a helluva lot harder than taking a loopy high-concept and grafting on an outrageous title: hands up, how many of you have ever actually finished “Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid” ? So when I first read of the title “Bubba Ho Tep" some time ago, and its premise involving an aging Elvis and a mummy, I was prepared for more witless tedium classed up with a very funny conceit--too slick for Something Weird Video and too self-consciously “hip” for “Mystery Science Theater 3000”.

But a closer look revealed that the pedigree of talent involved here is higher than usual: “Ash” himself, Bruce Campbell, headlines as “The King”, joined by respected stage/screen veteran Ossie Davis, in story conceived by the superb Texas-based ”mojo” storyteller Joe R. Lansdale, under the direction of Don Coscarelli, the creator of The Tall Man!

Of course, Campbell has also starred in unexceptional dreck like “Moontrap”, writers like Lansdale regularly have their prose butchered for the screen, Coscarelli DID direct “The Beastmaster” and has produced largely nothing but “Phantasm” films for the last twelve straight years, and Ossie Davis—well, this man delivered the eulogy for Malcolm X, just what the hell is he doing in this anyway?

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Rejoice in the news is that, IMHO, “Bubba Ho Tep” takes care of business. And with this premise, it had damn well better: Elvis Aron Presley had apparently switched identities with an Elvis impersonator (“Sebastian Haff”) shortly after his 1968 comeback special and had lived in anonymity until falling off the stage and breaking his hip. Of course, it was Haff who really died in 1977 and Presley got stuck in his Mud Creek, Texas rest home. Now nearly seventy and pining over a lifetime lost with his daughter, Elvis finds purpose in his humdrum routine when an evil, soul-sucking Egyptian mummy invades the facility. Jack, a fellow resident convinced that he is former President John F. Kennedy, is entirely convinced of the presence of this menace and joins The King’s crusade.

Campbell, not exactly the “shy” type, takes his cues from Kurt Russell’s 1979 incarnation and devours the role under fake jowls and a paunch gut that suggests “Mr. Saturday Night Travels 3000 Miles To Graceland”. And Ossie Davis makes for the perfect, serene foil as JFK, none too shocked by the presence of a mummy considering the elaborate conspiracy theory he’s cooked up explaining how an assassinated Irishman from Massachusetts ended up very much alive, black, and possessing a sack of sand where his brain used to be. Ho-Tep himself amounts to little more than his poster image—a swaggering, frayed silhouette in a cowboy hat and boots that materializes here and there in the rest home to cause havoc. Of course, this being a low-budget production (still seeking a distributor, at the time of this writing), actual Elvis songs were beyond Coscarelli’s budget, instead, Bryan Tyler (of “Six String Samurai”s Red Elvises) underscores the absurdity effectively with a rousing rockabilly anthem (Campbell’s white jumpsuit, on the other hand, is the real deal!).

“Bubba Ho Tep” provides its heroes with only two real encounters with their foe and ends abruptly, thus disappointing as a monster movie (though, to Coscarelli’s credit, there are moments of genuine, “Phantasm” worthy atmosphere and dread). But perhaps that’s not necessarily a flaw, given that this is one of the rare “quirky” character-based films that manage to evoke some pathos and even downright legit drama between the dream sequences and freaky scarab beetles. And considering that “Bubba” more or less occupies a genre vilified for its celebration of square-jawed heroes and nubile females, when was the last time you saw a film, of this or any type, that championed two enfeebled seniors (admittedly, one with a rather prominent square jaw) as saviors of the world?

It’s been well documented that the real Elvis Presley hated almost all the vehicles he appeared in until his last in1969, but I’ll bet he would’ve wagered a year of peanut-butter-and- banana sandwiches for the chance to fight an Egyptian mummy (JFK’s “Profiles In Courage” was a favorite book, too) instead of lip-synching through another role as a singing racing champ. During their intro, Campbell and Coscarelli said they’d sought to eradicate the image of Presley dying bloated and drug-ridden and give him a proper hero’s send-off. Considering their film’s surprising heart, I almost buy it.

“Bubba Ho-Tep” ends with the promise of “Bubba Nosferatu: Curse Of The She-Vampires”. Don, Bruce, Ossie—follow that dream, and don’t be cruel.

- Robert L

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