Friday, October 31, 2014

Bubba Ho-Tep

I didn't like Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) when I first saw it shortly after its release. With the promise of Bruce Campbell as Elvis teaming up with a black JFK to battle a soul-sucking mummy, I expected a wacky, gonzo romp, similar to Campbell's other work. I expected quips, poses, and action. What I got instead was a lot of fat, old Elvis lying in bed complaining about a cancerous growth on his dick and lamenting about how his life turned out.

Over the years, I've returned to the movie a few times, and each time, my fondness for it has grown. The movie's premise is undeniably weird, a narrative that just begs for a cult movie to be made from it, but Joe R. Landsdale, who wrote the story the movie is based on, and Don Coscarelli, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, do something unexpected: they treat the material seriously. It's a movie about Elvis and JFK, two of the largest icons of the twentieth century, battling one of the icons of ancient history, and in its own way, it's touching.

Elvis lives. He didn't die as was reported; that was an impersonator he switched places with after becoming fed up with the lifestyle. Elvis (Campbell) instead lives in a rundown retirement home in Mud Water, Texas with his best friend, John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis), who says he survived his assassination attempt and had his skin dyed black by the government. Elvis has little to do but pass the time, waiting for death and reflecting on his life. But something is moving through the dank, dark halls of the building; a mummy is on the loose, and it's killing the residents, sucking their souls out through their assholes. With no one else to turn to, Elvis and JFK decide to take down Bubba Ho-Tep themselves.

Coscarelli has a thing about death and what happens to people after they shuffle off this mortal coil. In Phantasm, the villainous Tall Man stole the bodes of the dead, squashed them down to Jawa size, and enslaved them on a distant planet. In Bubba Ho-Tep, the souls of the doomed retirement home residents are digested in Bubba Hot-Tep's digestive tract and shit out in a toilet (As JFK points out, even a mummy needs a nice quiet place to take dump and he didn't have a toilet when he was alive.).

That feeling of being chewed up and spit out by life is what defines Elvis in this movie. He had it all: fame, fortune, women, drugs, and now he's reduced to living a third-rate rest home, needing a nurse to rub a lotion on the growth on his junk. Such is the cruel hand of fate. The movie is reflective as Elvis, often bed-ridden, thinks back on his life, the choices he made, and only knows regret. He's a cast-off, a forgotten relic just waiting to die.

Oddly enough, by teaming with another final idol, JFK, who went from being the most powerful man in the free world and lover of Marilyn Monroe (when Elvis asks him what she was like in bed, he tells that's classified information but between the two of them, WOW!) to just another rest home resident, Elvis finds meaning in battling a mummy and protecting the other residents of the retirement home. For the first time in years, he feels rejuvenated. Somehow, there's poignancy to that.

Of course, a story can't help but have a sense of humor, but it's more subtle and less outrageous than one would expect. Elvis' observations have a dry, sardonic touch (when thinking about Priscilla, he wonders whether they'd have sex or even if they'd still be able to), and his battle with a flying scarab beetle, which he wins with the help of his bed pan and an open flame, resembles the Ash we know and love, and reminds us of Coscarelli's use of the ball from Phantasm. Even some of the other residents have their laughs; one victim steals the glasses off a patient in an iron lung and seems proud of herself for it, and another friend of Elvis thinks he's the Lone Ranger and is always firing his toy pistols (there's something a bit sad and funny about him firing his toys at the mummy).

There's some action in Bubba Ho-Tep, but it's not flashy or gory. Elvis and JFK fight Bubba Ho-Tep like the broken down old men they are, using their walkers and wheelchairs to hold themselves up. They're so pathetic, they're funny, but there's an element of desperation. If they lose, the mummy will devour their souls.

Bubba Ho-Tep is an acquired taste. It has the goofiest of setups, but it's played straight with subtle laughs. When I was younger, I guess I expected something sillier and fun rather than a meditation on life, death, and fame. The older I get, the more I like it.

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