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DVD Review: Bubba Ho-Tep

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Poor Zombos. Another birthday has come and gone, another year much older. He is now at that nonretractable age where the over-the-hill birthday cards are no longer funny no matter how many humanized monkeys, sun-glassed grandmas, scantily-clad woman, and you're-not-over-the-hill jokes grace them. The poor fellow is tumbling down that hill at this point.

Worse yet, his birthday cards contain no crisp currency whose presence is a clear notice of future-blessed youthfulness. There is no surer sign of maturity and pending fossilization than the absence of crisp greenbacks or that freshly-inked check nestled in the fold of your birthday card.

He has entered into that past-tense territory, a somewhat foggy land of blurred memories and time-diluted dreams where his continual verbal replays of the good old days replace the tasks and hopes of the here and now – and bore everyone around him to death.

Zimba valiantly tried to cheer him up and was partially successful when she flipped the TV channels to come upon King Kong Lives! What a bizarre film. I must make a note to see if Mystery Science Theater did a presentation on it. Zombos was practically on the floor by the time the big operation scene came along with Linda Hamilton wielding Land of the Giants-sized surgical instruments to perform open-heart surgery on the ailing ape. When they craned in the mechanical heart the size of a Smart Fortwo car, even Zimba was rolling on the floor in tears.

Zombos was soon back to his doldrums when the film ended, so I thought I would try and cheer him up. I am like that sometimes. I ventured into his closet, looking for something that would put a smile on his face. Yes! This would do it certainly; a bittersweet Don Coscarelli and Joe Lansdale tale of a mummy, an old Elvis Presley, and an older John F. Kennedy, played against the backdrop of fading vitality, unfulfilled dreams, and the inevitable pause before that big sleep. This would certainly cheer him up.

Bubba Ho-Tep is not a great film, but a damn good one. The superb performances by Bruce Campbell as the real Elvis Presley and Ossie Davis as a maybe JFK (as told by him, he was dyed black after the assassination incident), elevate this quirky mojo horror tale to an emotionally touching experience. The twangy guitar and acoustic drums score by Brian Tyler is more than above average for a B-movie and appropriately sets a bittersweet mood full of despair one moment and glory to damnation the next.

The story unfolds in the Mud Creek Shady Rest Convalescence Home where Elvis eventually winds up three stops past his prime. Seems he was getting tired of the same old thing, day after day, and wanted out. In flashbacks, we see him hire Sebastian Haff, the best Elvis impersonator there is, to take over the life he no longer wants. He hits the road as Haff, while Haff hits the stage as him. Both men impersonate each other. When Haff overdoses, the real Elvis becomes trapped in his own impersonation. No one believes he's the real deal and he soon winds up down on his luck and alone in an old-age home.

We see Elvis in his dotage, bored stiff, ruminating on what could — or should — have been, relegated to using a walker to get around, and suffering from a serious ailment of his little prince. His ego is deflated to the point of detachment with his surroundings, shown in the early moments of the film as Elvis lies in his bed, watching each day's events transpire around him in blurred fast motion and shutter cuts. Life happens around him and without him: he simply doesn't care. People treat him as an old, unimportant  head-case with mutton chop sideburns and a sparkling wardrobe.

It takes a scarab beetle as big as a “peanut butter and banana sandwich,” and JFK, thirty-fifth president of the United States, to involve him in an adventure that soon has him taking care of supernatural business.

Jack (JFK) tells Elvis there is a mummy scuttling through the halls of the East Texas old-age home, sucking out the souls of its denizens through a most unlikely orifice. The public toilet room discussion between Jack and Elvis regarding the discovery of the “stick pictures on the sh*thouse wall,” and Jack's bizarre translation of them, is priceless. Both soon realize they have a soul sucking Egyptian mummy roaming the halls and refer to the Everyday Man and Woman's Book of the Soul for guidance to combat this menace.

Mummy_2No one really wants to be in the old-age home; not Elvis, not Jack, not Reggie Bannister, who plays the rest home administrator, and not Kemosabe, the senile masked cowboy that goes after the mummy with toy cap guns. Not even the mummy really wants to be there. The flashback as to how he wound up in a Texas rest home is as sadly commonplace as anyone else's story, but while he is there, he has to take care of business, too, to stay alive.

The slow rolling camera scenes through the dark and empty hallways reinforce the isolation that Elvis and Jack face in fighting this mummy dressed in cowboy duds – a Bubba Ho-Tep, as Elvis calls him. It also reinforces the aloneness that both men face just being old and discarded to an old-age home. The real horror in this film is not the mummy: he's stuck there, too, and cursed to boot. It's the humiliation of old-age, and the aloneness, and the “always the hopes, never the fulfillments,” nagging doubts as Elvis realizes he has lots of too-late-to-do-anything-now filed away. The melancholic, introspective voice-over delivered by Campbell as Elvis throughout the story sets the tone for his actions and his motivations, and works well with the raspy twang of the guitar strumming score.

Bubbahoteptrailer_11There is a wonderful Carl Kolchak feeling to this story, as these two men struggle to overcome their situation and age-related handicaps to fight a supernatural force as out of place in the world as they are. Elvis, in his walker and best costume, and Jack, in his wheelchair and best suit, confront Bubba Ho-Tep in a final showdown filled with near ambulatory action, fire, and invectives hurled back and forth, with the mummy saying his in animated glyphs – with subtitles.

The DVD comes filled with thoughtful extras, including featurettes on the music, making the mummy come to life, Bob Ivy's stunt work, and a lively commentary between Bob Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell.

In the current cinema horror cycle where torture and grisly death await most victims, and the would-you-like-fries-with-that franchising of stories to over-salted excess burns out the craft and skill of blending memorable characters and witty dialog with unique storylines, Bubba Ho-Tep is a classic little gem that should not be missed.

Or, as Elvis would say, TCB, baby, TCB.

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  • Phillip Winn

    Great movie — despite your demotion to “good” — and great review — again, despite your demotion…