Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) / Comedy-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual content and scary images
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivey
Director: Don Coscarelli
Screenplay: Don Coscarelli (based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale)
Review published September 14, 2005
Bruce Campbell (Serving Sara, Sky High) stars as an aging Elvis Presley, or an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Huff depends what you believe. He spends his days bedridden in a convalescent home in Texas with other eccentric characters, including a man that claims to be John F. Kennedy trapped in a Black man's body (Davis, She Hate Me). Trouble begins when residents of the home start dying in mysterious ways, and soon Elvis and JFK become convinced that an ancient and powerful being has been feeding off of the souls of their fellow patients -- and they may be next!
While it is an amusing movie, Bubba Ho-tep is much funnier to actually talk about having seen than it is to actually view. The mention of Bruce Campbell starring is enough to bring a smile to the faces of cult films everywhere. Those smiles broaden as they hear he is playing Elvis. They start to giggle when hearing that JFK is an old Black guy now. They positively cackle with delight when they learn that this odd couple join forces to take down a powerful soul-sucking mummy. It's so crazy, it just might work!
Bubba Ho-tep is directed by a man that knows all about how to make cult films, Don Coscarelli. Don's crafted a few of his own already in the Phantasm flicks and Turner station perennial, The Beastmaster. Those films weren't exacly good films, but they have a campy element that makes them fun and easy to watch nonetheless. Bubba Ho-tep certainly is in keeping with that cheesy fun tradition, although it is Coscarelli's best film to date, thanks in large part to Campbell's presence, as well as an offbeat quality to the mystery that makes it more intriguing than just a straightforward Elvis vs. The Mummy adventure.
Contrary to what you'd think, this isn't an all-out laughfest. In fact, the most interesting aspect of Bubba Ho-tep is that Coscarelli plays it mostly straight, taking the characters and situations for face value, not trying to work each scene into a punchline. There are moments where jokes are forced in, such as when the mummy rips out a few expletives, complete with hieroglyphics that describe the vile words quite literally. It plays out as earnest, but underneath, it's all in fun, as it should be.
Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that defies genre descriptions, as it contains many elements of several, while never really taking root in any particular one. As a comedy, it isn't really going for the big laughs you'd think. As a horror film, it isn't trying to scare you. As a fantasy, it isn't trying to carry you away to another atmosphere. As a drama, it isn't really going for profundity either, although it does occasionally encroach into that realm, perhaps unintentionally. It's a movie that you have to see to believe, and even if it never really ends up being the hilarious action-horror film you expect it to be from the description, it does surprise by being true to the characters and situations in a way that merits respectability where it could have easily gone for exploitation.
That the film will have a cult following is a given -- Campbell's take on Elvis alone is enough to merit that status. Bubba Ho-Tep may not be cinematic greatness for most viewers, but genre fanatics will certainly eat this up heartily, relishing every offbeat moment and quirky line of dialogue. Mainstream viewers will find it...weird, probably. Still, an instant cult classic doesn't come out every day, so if you look through your video collection and notice that you own a great many films that others think you an odd person for enjoying, there's no question that Bubba Ho-Tep will most likely be a cherished part of it soon after your first viewing.
©2005 Vince Leo