A new street drug that sends its users across time and dimensions has one drawback: some people return as no longer human. Can two college dropouts save humankind from this silent, otherworldly invasion?
Exceptional London cop Nicholas Angel is involuntarily transferred to a quaint English village and paired with a witless new partner. While on the beat, Nicholas suspects a sinister conspiracy is afoot with the residents.
Based on the Bram Stoker Award nominee short story by cult author Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-tep tells the "true" story of what really did become of Elvis Presley. We find Elvis (Bruce Campbell) as an elderly resident in an East Texas rest home, who switched identities with an Elvis impersonator years before his "death", then missed his chance to switch back. Elvis teams up with Jack (Ossie Davis), a fellow nursing home resident who thinks that he is actually President John F. Kennedy, and the two valiant old codgers sally forth to battle an evil Egyptian entity who has chosen their long-term care facility as his happy hunting grounds. Written by
Slightly anti-climactic ending, but excellent overall
Set in a retirement home, two residents--a man who may or may not be Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and a man who may or may not be John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis)--encounter strange Egyptian beetles and a mummy with an attitude.
On the quirky weirdness scale, Bubba Ho-tep deserves a solid 10. Writer Joe R. Lansdale and writer/director Don Coscarelli's bizarre confluence of pop culture references, surrealism, absurdism, mythology and social commentary/criticism is very close to my own preferences and approach to art making. Unfortunately, though, at least on a first viewing, the climax didn't quite click for me the way it should have, and I had to subtract one point. But overall this is an excellent film, and a 9 is still equivalent to a letter grade of an "A".
Although often sold as a horror film, and listed as "horror/comedy" on IMDb, Bubba Ho-tep is more of what I consider a "surrealist realist drama". That's likely to seem like an oxymoron and not make any sense, so let me explain. "Realist drama" consists of fictions that try in most ways to approximate the actual world. The concerns are to show "real kinds" of people in "real kinds" of environments and situations, behaving, speaking and interacting in "real kinds" of ways. There are a number of artists, however, who take that framework and build something more surreal/absurdist on top of it, but the realist drama foundations remain.
For a number of reasons, this tends to be more easily found in literature, and a number of my favorite authors write in this style, including Tom Robbins, Harry Crews, Thomas Berger, Thomas Pynchon and on the more journalistic side of things, Hunter S. Thompson (yes, it's odd that most of them have some variation of "Tom" in their names). Although some filmmakers approach the style (and of course, films have been made from some of those authors' books), like the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Tim Burton, David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, and others, the tendency with films is to let them slide from surrealist realist drama to surrealist fantasy or other kinds of genre films, maybe with some hints of realist drama. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, it's just two sometimes subtly different approaches. I like surrealist fantasy and genre films just as well.
The bulk of Bubba Ho-tep is in that genre; it works extremely well as a surrealist realist drama. We never can tell if Campbell is really Elvis or if he's just crazy, but if he may be Elvis, it gives extra weight to the possibility that Davis is a "dyed" and transformed John F. Kennedy (since Davis is black and has obviously different facial features). Campbell receives a remarkable makeup job that helps him change into an aging, unhealthy Elvis. His performance is spot-on. Campbell does an amazing job physically, as well, particularly when he has to use a walker in some unusual ways.
The production design crew did an admirable job with the minimal sets, with Campbell's shared room being appropriate for the caliber of an Elvis impersonator (which the character may be instead) and Davis' room subtly conveying "Presidential Suite" and an obsession with Kennedy's supposed assassination. Coscarelli and cinematographer Adam Janeiro easily capture a nice dreamlike atmosphere in the retirement home and grounds, with the fantastic hallways especially standing out.
The backstory explaining how Campbell's character is Elvis is one of the more entertaining sections of the film--Campbell makes us believe that he's Elvis impersonating an impersonator impersonating Elvis, which is understandably difficult. The horror material is good, but the mummy seems a bit underdeveloped as a character, making the final section of the film a bit anti-climactic. It probably would have been better to keep the focus on the retirement home and its residents, maybe also exploring a similar backstory for Ossie Davis, at least a backstory showing how he started to believe that he was Kennedy. Just as the Elvis backstory may have been mythologized rather than real, the Kennedy backstory could have been from the character's delusions or fantasies, as well.
The film is easy to interpret with a subtext about discarding people as they are no longer needed, with others who are still in the world treating them basically as lumps of mass that are more often than not disturbing to attend to. It doesn't matter how famous the discarded may have been, or how archetypally or mythologically important, as in the case of the mummy. The mummy's vampiric means of self-renewal (and need for self-renewal) is easily taken as a metaphor for the loss of self that the discarded undergo in such situations.
Of course, maybe the mummy wasn't really a mummy, and even that aspect of the film is a bit fantasized. In any event, the ending does have poignancy from the human side of the story, and Bubba Ho-tep is without a doubt worth viewing. The DVD is also worth picking up, as it contains two commentaries (one from Campbell as Elvis), excellent "making of" featurettes, a funny music video and a real rarity--a pithy, well written insert rather than just a "chapter selection" liner/tray card.
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