Always the Questions
You know, it’s pretty grim stuff we got facing us at the end of the day, winding up like this in an old folks’ home.
—Don Coscarelli, commentary track, Bubba Ho-tep: Limited Collector’s Edition
I think we got some major bug problems in this place, man.
—Elvis (Bruce Campbell), Bubba Ho-tep
Bubba Ho-tep begins with a 1930s “German newsreel,” Schätze der Pharaonen. Retranslated for the purposes of writer/director Don Coscarelli’s movie, the subtitles narrate: “Adventurers unearth the tomb of King Amen Ho-tep near Luxor and Thebes. The Mummy and his priests are brought to the surface and see the light of day for the first time in over 4000 years.” These first moments already gesture toward the film’s several levels of irony, insight, and comedy, tracing the simultaneous disjunctions and intersections between surface and underneath, sight and ignorance, youth and age, life and death. All this in the movie’s first minute.
With one commentary track provided by Coscarelli and his star Bruce Campbell—and a second by Campbell in character, that is, The King, Elvis Presley—MGM’s DVD of Bubba Ho-tep is genuinely entertaining and intelligent. An investigation of U.S. cultural mythologies and legends that also points out that same culture’s disrespect of elders, the film is quirky and cultish, and earned a devoted, if small, following during its theatrical release.
Elvis/Sebastian Haff lives in the Shady Rest Convalescence Home, in Mud Creek, Texas (though they shot in “Downey, California, just south of Los Angeles,” Campbell says, “the armpit of America”). Here he is perpetually depressed, wondering why he gave up his fame in exchange for a briefly “normal” life (his deal with a cherry-pie-eating impersonator, Sebastian Haff, is revealed in flashback), a decision that backfires when their contract burns up and Elvis is left to earn a living impersonating himself, at least until he’s been abandoned to the rest home (where, Campbell observes, “Elvis has to be lit like an old starlet”).
Now miserable, hopeless, and ignored by most everyone around him, Elvis is introduced by what might be his perspective—a set of time lapse and jump cuts that suggests his “disorientation.” When he wakes, more or less, he is struck—yet again—by his impotence, when his dead roommate’s mini-skirted, bleached-headed daughter, Callie (Heidi Marnhout), comes to collect his belongings. Staring across at her, Elvis gets her to lean down to pick something up, such that he gets a look at “her love nest.” She doesn’t even notice him, of course, treating his look as if he’s a house pet, and yet, Elvis sighs in voiceover, “I felt my pecker flutter once, like a pigeon having a heart attack.” At this point, his involuntary response is almost more discouraging than if he hadn’t had one.
The plot of Bubba Ho-tep begins with the interruption of Elvis’ slow death by boredom and cancer on his “pecker” (Coscarelli says, “Here’s our hero talking about his penis is filling up with pus again; it definitely sets the tone”) by the arrival of the Mummy. Also called Bubba Ho-tep (Bob Ivy under all kinds of make-up), the monster proceeds to steal the old folks’ souls, sucking them out through their genitals. The rest home, Campbell asserts, is a “perfect feeding ground,” as is the contest between the old, slow moving victims and the slow-moving Bubba.
First appearing as a scarab beetle, the monster gets Elvis’ attention by eating old ladies’ souls. When he runs into the bug himself, Elvis fights back and even scrambles a bit, with startling agility (“Isn’t it easier to work off a rubber bug?” asks Coscarelli). Recognizing that he’s up against a real object (as Ed-Woodish as it may seem), Elvis is energized for the first time in years, to the point that when the nurse (Ella Joyce) arrives for his regular penis lubrication, he actually gets an erection.
With a new reason to get up in the morning (beyond thinking about breakfast or his “next trip to the crapper”), Elvis comes to a realization concerning the loss of his life, or more precisely, the squandering of his opportunities. Lying in his bed, the tv at the foot so that the camera peers over it, through his feet to his increasingly aghast face, he watches a 24-hour Elvis movie marathon (Coscarelli admits that they were unable to secure rights to any Elvis materials, songs or movie clips, and so this sequence compiles French videos and other bits, showing a guy in a leather jacket and big hair, as Campbell says, “chicks in bikinis”). And here, he sees himself, perhaps for a first time:
Now I realized, I never had any pride, and how much of how life had treated me had been good. The bulk of the bad was my own damn fault. Should’ve fired Colonel Parker by the time I got in the pictures. Old fart had been a shark and a fool, and I was an even bigger fool for followin’ him. If only I’d treated Pricilla right. If I could’ve told my daughter I loved her. Always the questions, never the answers.
Who knew The King was capable of such weighty self-reflection? As Coscarelli and Campbell remark here, Elvis’ lamentation and reevaluation tend to elicit audience nods of agreement—yes, Elvis, you had so much potential. Elvis, you were betrayed. And yes, Elvis, you threw it all away. All this thinking, imagining, and wanting keep the Elvis myth alive and, importantly, the folks making pilgrimages to Graceland and purchasing paraphernalia. Bubba Ho-tep takes such desire as its point of departure, exploring its resonance, layered realities, and wide-ranging meanings, and its connections with other nation-making myths, more disturbing and revealing than inspiring.
Appropriately, given this investigative context, Elvis’ partner in pursuit of the mummy is fellow rest home detainee, Jack Kennedy (Ossie Davis). (Okay, so he thinks he’s JFK, and has Lee Harvey Oswald’s mug shots framed in his room, as well as a nice Presidential sit in his closet in case he ever has someplace to go.) When, one evening, Elvis hears a ruckus and finds Jack alone in his room, face down on the floor, they agree to work the case together, vowing to save their fellow patients. “I’ll be damned,” mutters Elvis, hoisting himself up onto his walker, “If I let some foreign, graffiti-writin’, soul-suckin’ son of a bitch in an oversized cowboy hat and boots take my friends’ souls and shit ‘em down the visitors’ toilet!”
It turns out that Jack has useful information regarding their prey. He’s been keeping a file (marked M for “Mummy”), and he’s also noticed the graffiti the creature has left in a bathroom stall. Though Elvis is skeptical at first (“You bring me in here to look at stick pictures on the shit house wall?), he’s soon convinced that they have a chance to fight this thing. (As he watches this bathroom scene, Coscarelli says he imagined another shot—not in the film—to show “that the mummy has time on his hands too, just like a person, and will come in and write stuff on the walls.”)
Combining conventions and clichés from Westerns and horror films, Bubba Ho-tep is as much about how stories get told as it is a story in itself. With this in mind, the DVD extras are well-considered, as they assemble still more stories, and respect the process of telling: one has Joe Lansdale reading from his short story, the film’s basis (accompanied by illustrations). Others include a series of featurettes (“Making of Bubba Ho-tep”; “To Make a Mummy,” with input from the effects team and costume designer Shelley Kay; “Fit for a King,” also about costumes; and “Rock Like an Egyptian,” a discussion of the score, between Coscarelli and composer Bryan Tyler); and two deleted scenes with commentary by Coscarelli and Campbell.
As Elvis in this film has lived out his life as a fake, so he has recreated his own story again and again. Much as JFK lives on in legend and conspiracy theories, so too does Presley inhabit a collective consciousness. In the film, they exist as well in their own bodies, yearning to matter. The concept is so simple, it becomes profound.