Down in Texas, at a shabby nursing home called Mud Creek Shady Rest, a fat wreck of a man is living out his final days. The staff knows him as Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell), but Haff lets us in on the truth. He’s really Elvis Aaron Presley. The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll had traded places with a professional Elvis impersonator back in the day to escape the trappings of Kinghood. Now he spends his time, watching staff speed through their daily routines, worrying about an undiagnosed growth on his penis (“Truth was,” he notes in voiceover, “I hadn’t had a hard-on in years,”) and wondering, “Is there anything to life other than food, shit and sex?”
Down the perpetually underlit halls a second patient (Ossie Davis) also claims to be a famous personage, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, victim of an unseen conspiracy that has taken out part of his brain and replaced it with sand, then dyed his body black “all over.” When a stolen Egyptian mummy shows up at the nursing home, sucking the souls of residents out through whatever orifice is convenient, it’s up to these two old, barely ambulatory geezers to stop the monster that Elvis/Sebastian calls Bubba Ho-Tep.
It’s to writer/director Don Coscarelli’s credit (working from a tall tale by Joe R. Lansdale) that
a.) he never once lets us know for certain if our heroes are totally delusional (though at one point, E/S spies an unexplained scar on the back of his friend’s head) and
b.) he keeps a straight face through the entire preposterous proceedings.
As a result, he creates something pretty unique in the annals of low-budget moviedom: a blend of campiness and melancholy regret that does both these boomer icons proud. He also – rather amazingly for me at least since I’d written the guy off years ago – has created his first great film since Phantasm (sorry, Beastmaster fans!)
The movie proceeds at its own geezerly pace and at times shows the restraints of its budget (the climactic showdown between our heroes and mummy is flatter than you’d expect it to – which only seems half intentional), while the occasional old-aged digressions into scatological obsessions will definitely try the patience of some audience members. But there are plenty of moments of B-pic poetry in this baby: a scene where our hero attempts to fend off a flying scarab (happily reminiscent of the deadly flying orb from Phantasm) using nothing but his walker and some dinner utensils, for instance, or the moment when a victim-to-be surprisingly shuffles up to a second nursing home resident in an iron lung to steal her eyeglasses. Plus, he captures the ravages of age and convalescent isolation with noir-like toughness.
The mummy, happily, is pretty cool looking, too. Created by the FX crew at KNB EFX Group, he strides down the halls in an unexplained cowboy outfit: just the kind of creature you’d expect to see in one of Lansdale’s outlandish horror westerns. When he opens up his maw to attack one of our heroes, it’s a moment horror fans’ll treasure.
Coscarelli couldn’t have pulled it all off without Campbell, of course, who inhabits his role with hard-bitten believability. It’s too bad more folks won’t be seeing this quirky little flick, if only to get a glimpse of what a damn fine actor Bruce Campbell can be when he’s not attaching chainsaws to his arm and fending off the walking dead. At one point in Bubba Ho-Tep, our hero comes upon a 24 Hour Elvis Marathon on television and sadly considers the King’s film legacy: “Shitty pictures – every one of ‘em,” he pronounces. You get the sense in that moment Coscarelli would’ve loved to write and direct a movie for the real Elvis Presley. If only he could’ve.
When you’re old, Elvis/Sebastian states early in the proceedings, “Everything you do is either worthless or sadly amusing.” On the whole, Bubba Ho-Tep is the latter – and all the better for it.
BLOGGISH POSTSCRIPT: I like it when a director remains loyal to the actors who were present when s/he started out (as with Joe Dante’s ongoing use of Roger Corman regular Dick Miller), so I was pleased to note the presence of Reggie Bannister, the balding hippie-ish brother from the Phantasm movies, in this pic as an officious nursing home administrator. Way to go, Don!