Bubba Ho-Tep has everything one might expect from a movie directed by Don Coscarelli (the Phastasm series) and starring Bruce Campbell, best known as chainsaw-wielding “Ash” from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. It’s got a hideously disfigured monster, a creepy house in the woods, an ancient evil curse, and, of course, Elvis and John F. Kennedy.
Okay, it’s not really JFK, but Ossie Davis as a guy who thinks he’s the President. The King (Campbell), however, is the real thing, a geriatric Elvis, wasting away his last days in bed at a rest home in East Texas, riddled with bitter regret and suffering the ignominy of a painful, pussing growth on his pecker. Having switched places with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff, Presley hopes to fade into the trailer-park oblivion of Haff’s life, impersonating himself for a living. That is, until he takes a tumble from the stage and winds up, 20 years later, in the Mud Creek, Texas Shady Rest Home, where he expects to spend his last moments in bed—until a re-animated mummy shows up to feed off the rest home’s inhabitants.
Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Bob Ivey
(Silver Sphere Corp.)
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)
Despite what might be construed as a ludicrous premise, Bubba Ho-Tep is in fact a thoughtful mediation on aging and regret, as well as a generous humanization of an American icon. After lubing his ailing penis, Elvis’ nurse (Ella Joyce) cracks wise about Presley’s decreased sexual potency. The King thinks aloud, in voice-over, that when you “get old… everything you do is either worthless or sadly amusing.”
Available in such observations and creepy time-lapsed photography, his perspective shows the deadly routine of the rest home. The trick photography suggests that as he deteriorates, Elvis is turning introspective, less self-obsessed and more self-aware, as he sorts through his past. He’s also slipping in and out of a dream state, through which his story is told. As he ruminates on his excesses and the loss of Priscilla and Lisa-Marie, it’s as though he’s slipping out of the garish dream of his celebrity and into the reality of the rest home.
Campbell, acting under tons of makeup, gray sideburns, and a fat suit, is hardly recognizable. But even with this studied, very credible performance, he’s lost none of his sarcasm. His Elvis spits earthy philosophical one-liners like, “Is there anything to life other than food, shittin’, and sex?” Even the latter is out of Elvis’ reach, due to his mysterious growth. Things look bleak until he’s attacked by a scarab the size of a dinner plate. He springs into action, squashing the bug, but it’s only the beginning of an adventure that wins him back his dignity. Close on the scarab’s scuttling heels is a resurrected mummy in a cowboy hat and boots, and it’s up to Elvis and his friend JFK (Davis) to save the shuffling residents of Mud Creek, and prove that even for the old and institutionalized, there is more to life than bodily functions.
Elvis and JFK figure out the mummy’s M.O. by reading a book of magic, or rather, a homemade encyclopedia of monsters and other scary stuff. They battle a curse, and the mummy turns out to be a nasty soul-sucker (what happens to the souls after they’re sucked is a choice bit of sick humor). But this mummy stuff is all a pretense. The King and the Prez come alive as they strategize over coffee and Baby Ruths (in a cute allusion to the duo’s rowdier days, Davis says, “Let’s get decadent”). Their attack on the ancient cursed mummy is also an attack on the tedium of growing old in an institution.
The miserable rest home incarnates common fears of aging—losing friends, family, and purpose, as well as potency. Bubba Ho-Tep, ostensibly a B monster comedy, is, under its makeup and effects, a witty, sensitive old-guy bonding movie like Grumpy Old Men, and Campbell and Davis are as ace a comic duo as Matthau and Lemmon.
While the thought of another Elvis or JFK biopic is slightly nauseating, Bubba creatively breathes life into these American archetypes, warts and all. In a recent exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of Modern Art, called “The American Effect,” an installation of life-sized, comic-book superheroes as elderly, ailing men and women. Bubba Ho-Tep similarly deconstructs “timeless” American icons. In Bubba Ho-Tep the portrayal of these two icons as vulnerable, subject to frailties of aging and institutionalization strips away the mythos and the scandal and leaves the universally human need for dignity and purpose, even when the “mojo” is no more.