Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Director-writer Don Coscarelli has earned his place in the genre reference books by creating two surprisingly persistent but rarely-valued franchises, the Phantasm run (with three sequels to date to the sprightly, inventive 1979 horror film) and the Beastmaster cycle (two sequels and a TV spin-off from the adequate 1982 sword and sorcery picture). However, since the bulk of this activity has been of the straight-to-cable or video variety, it has sometimes seemed he was likely to disappear into a limbo of servitude to the Phantasm premise - itself all about shipping victims off to slavery in another dimension - without ever signing another noteworthy non-series item. Here, however, he has hit upon lively, congenial material in a story by Texan horror-crime writer Joe R. Lansdale, an original voice in many novels and short pieces, plus episodes of the outstanding animated Batman TV series.

Written for a collection of horror stories about Elvis Presley, Bubba Ho-Tep is prime Lansdale, narrated in an inimitably profane but precise regional manner (note Elvis's description of a killer scarab as 'about the size of a large peanut butter and banana sandwich') which Coscarelli's script wisely retains, including voice-over narration that gets as much of Lansdale's prose as possible into the movie. Typical of the writer, but also of the mind behind Phantasm, is the juxtaposition of wildly disparate elements that somehow gel: besides an entire cracked conspiracy theory about how Elvis winds up living anonymously in a retirement home (it involves a freak barbeque accident, among other contrivances) and the soul-sucking ancient Egyptian troublemaker, much (including a nurse who has to grease the narrator's perhaps-cancerous penis) might derive from Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. Like Potter's Marlow, Lansdale and Coscarelli's Elvis, played to a creakily shrugging perfection by Bruce Campbell, begins as a self-pitying, embittered, frankly unpleasant character but reveals through his kinship with the other oddballs in the home that he longs to rejoin the human race and, in going after the murderous mummy, at last be the kind of hero he was only in 'shitty movies' but always longed to be in life. In all the jokes and non sequiturs, there's an affecting depiction of the rootless, restless elderly - even the mummy is a bored dolt who scratches 'Cleopatra does the nasty' and 'Pharaoh gobbles donkey goobers' on the toilet wall - who are neglected by the young and ignored by care-workers but can summon up enthusiasm and even some physical vigour when given a mystery to solve and a monster to destroy.

Obviously, a low-budget effort, Bubba Ho-Tep is hindered by inability to license a single note of Presley-associated music. When Elvis catches a trailer for a '24 hour Elvis movie marathon' on television, Coscarelli has to use public domain snippets of unrelated material that highlights the absence of anything like the real King from the movie, even to the extent of blurring photographs Elvis claims are of his much-missed daughter Lisa Marie. This makes the central character, the real Elvis, more shadowy than Jack, a conspiracy theorist deluded in thinking he's JFK: Jack's room is decorated with Kennedy family photographs, mug shots of Oswald and Ruby and even a Dealey Plaza diorama. Though the film works round this void, and it's understandable that those who control the licensing of Presley's image might wish to stay away from a project as odd as this, the lack is felt, with only the performances filling in gaps, as when Elvis and Jack sadly wish that they had been able to be there for their troubled children.

Strangely, the least-effective strand of the film is its horror movie premise, with a stiff mummy whose interesting frills (swearing and graffitiing in hieroglyphs, a pathetic attempt to look like a cowboy) and gruesome habits don't cover up the fact that he's just another skull-faced, bandaged plodder in the low-budget line of Time Walker or Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy. The scarab is a big rubber prop which might be nostalgia-inducing for fans of pre-CGI effects, but doesn't make for much of a threat in its attack on Elvis. With a backstory clumsily revealed through unexplained psychic flashes and newspaper clippings, the monster never quite lives up to its soul-sucking rep and a few full-body-burns are enough to see him off at the finale. As it happens, the monster has no chance: the heroes real victory comes as they merely enter the field of battle: Jack natty in a suit and tie on a motorised wheelchair and Elvis in a belly-ballooned white sequin caped jumpsuit striding along behind a zimmer frame toting a homemade flamethrower. Though the narration seems posthumous, the end credits do promise a follow-up, Bubba Nosferatu...
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: Sight and Sound issue unknown


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