Bubba Ho-Tep: Cult Horror, Black Comedy, Western and an Anachronistic Masterpiece/Hero Worship and Used People

I’ve been reflecting on some contemporary horror films lately because there are a bunch that are really worthy of attention. There are so many retreads that I feel the industry suffers from remakitus. And I don’t ascribe to the theory that what was once culturally relevant has to be made more accessible to a new generation of genre film goers. I don’t think that film makers need to underestimate the hunger and  exploration of vintage films because what made them great is timeless. I’ve rarely seen a remake that improved on the original. In fact, the hyper use of CGI’s (I swear I’m not a technophobe) sort of distracts from the actual substance of the plot. Not in every case of course, I believe if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I won’t continue to go off on a tangent as I often do, but I will say that the remake of my beloved The Haunting by Robert Wise was a travesty. Nothing short of sacrilegious. I squirmed in my seat at the movie theater. I anticipated that the remake could never come close to the original, but the mess that was on the screen was an affront to an iconic masterpiece that never should have been attempted. Okay, I’m done (deep sigh)

So, rarely does a film come along that does something so original, thoughtful, entertaining and true to the horror genre that’s made it so great over these vast decades. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) was scripted and directed by Don Coscarelli who came out of the shadows after giving us one of the most memorable nightmarish journey /horror films of all time. Phantasm.

Phantasm is a film that I plan on reviewing down the road. I used to watch it several times a year, because it is one of the most frightening, atmospheric and haunting stories that just sticks with you. And like wine, horror movies like Phantasm get better with time. But I imagine someone is going to remake this one as well.

Coscarelli is such a masterful storyteller. He’s a modern brother’s Grimm, who evokes a creep factor that is superbly surreal. He creates snap shots, images that stay with you. And with Bubba Ho-Tep there is no exception.

He’s crafted an Anachronism on purpose, not like Charlton Heston’s character Ben-Hur wearing a wrist watch during the epic chariot race in that film.

Bringing Coscarelli together with the bigger than life Bruce Campbell was a stroke of genius, the perfect actor to portray an elderly Elvis hiding out at an East Texas Nursing home.

The film opens up with a slickly campy textual reference to both sub names of the picture’s title character. In official dictionary style, we see on the screen

Ho-Tep n. 1) relative or descendant of the 17 Egyptian Dynasties ,3100-1550 B.C. 2) Family surname of an Egyptian Pharaoh (king)

Bubba -(bub’uh) n. 1) Male from the Southern U.S. 2) Good Ole boy 3 )Cracker,red neck, trailer park resident. Already Coscarelli is letting us know that he’s going to spin a tale which blends humor and genuine chills with a dash of Egyptian mythology in order to blend the cultural eons and blur the lines that will bind them together.

Also utilizing a wonderful undertone of the Western motif, and a great score by Brian Tyler using, 50’s blues, rock-a -billy and surfer/twangy western emo for it’s soundtrack.

One of the quirky retirement home’s characters Kimosabe. Is a has been cowboy, who’s still slinging guns and wears a Lone Ranger mask. The use of blending the themes of Western and Horror work so well together, because there has often been a correlation between the idea of lone ,renegade isolationism and morality plays working within the constructs of the good vs evil epitome. The us vs. them, the “other” as alien and somethings to be cautious against. There are several hall way shots in the rest home that are reminiscent of High Noon.

So the film starts out with some reel footage from the 30’s of an archeological discovery of one of the famous mummy’s of the 17 Egyptian Dynasties and the ensuing shipment bound for a museum on a train is stolen by some thieves during a Tornado so, it winds up crashing off a bridge into an East Texas Creek. Freed from imprisonment, to roam and feed on souls.

Juxtapose that with present day Mud Creek Texas. A Hammond organ breathing it’s slow and pining breath as we are now at the retirement home. The use of color in this film is also notable. Reminiscent of the fable like tones Coscarelli used in Phantasm. The austere and vacuous landscape of a place, where used up people go to wither away.

One such despicable character, an old woman who steals a pair of glasses off another sweet old lady who is unable to fend her off, because she is in an iron lung. The loathsome old biddy also steals the poor dear’s box of chocolates as well. She is not a sympathetic character because she is obviously preying on the weaker of the residents at the home.

So I wasn’t too unhappy when, what she thinks is a very large cockroach turns out to be a scarab from ancient Egypt that is either the minion or the host for Bubba Ho-Tep the mummy and antagonist of the film. As she tries to desperately get away from this large beetle it morphs into the large and forbidding shadow fiend of the mummy. The effect is so grand. Soon after we see her from the top half, in the doorway laying on the ground asking Elvis to help her, as she is swiftly dragged away from sight. Another very effective scene.

Elvis, known to the staff as an Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, whom he had secretly switched identities with, years ago, needing a way out of the limelight, disappointed and dissolute, he signs a Mephistophelian contract with the impersonator which condemns his true identity and his eternal soul into obscurity forever., by accidentally burning the contract up in a BBQ explosion incident at a trailer park. Sebastian Haff is the one that the world thinks has died. The blueberry pie smeared on Haff’s mouth when Elvis first encounters his fated partner is precious.

So Elvis is bound to wander incognito as Haff, doing shows as the impersonator, until he falls off the stage and breaks his hip and winds up at the retirement home, that is now being visited nocturnally by an ancient mummy who’s thirst for souls is insatiable.

The now 68 year old Elvis is being cared for by staff nurse played perfectly by Ella Joyce who adds a great level of cynicism to the film. No one at the home truly believes Elvis’s true identity except for Jack.

The premise is so implausible, but the characters are so believable and so enjoyable to watch and listen to their little diatribes, that you could care less and die laughing at the same time. The editing is so seamless. Bubba Ho-Tep is filmed with such great style and fluidity that while ,I usually don’t enjoy quick jump cuts, but in the few places here Coscarelli uses it like a dream. They work to connect these unlikely characters to this even more implausible plot.

Now, Elvis has been sighted for years, in the National Enquirer and similar rags, seen downing chili dogs and slurpies at 7-11’s and Piggly Wigglys everywhere.

Which really taps into the urban myth and cultural yen and hero worship of icons like Elvis who were very hard to let go of. The film rekindles that desire and puts him in the “what if” scenario which makes for a great adventure. As his companion, yet another unbelievable character emerges in the form of Jack, played by the wonderful veteran dramatic actor of stage and classic film Ossie Davis. Davis plays Jack, who claims to be John F.Kennedy. Of course he explains that his being black is due to the fact that they dyed him that color. Jack has photographs and mug shots of Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald on the walls of his stark room. And at first he’s convinced that the scarab is really President Lyndon Johnson come to assassinate him.”Come to finish him off” Some of the quirky characterizations could have been penned by The Coen Brothers, it’s that good.

The reoccurring scene with the hearse in front of the rest home, with the two bumbling funeral home attendants and their idiotic commentary on life.

Essentially what transcends this film from just cult horror status is the notion that here two very life weary men have an opportunity to regain some vitality, dignity and reclaim their identities because they are now both joined together by this intriguing and dangerous adventure. The chance to be heroic. To be relevant. This is a story about used people, lost amidst the wasteland of old age and isolation. The creepy fiend, this Bubba Ho-Tep is merely the vehicle with which to regain their sense of self, and conquer their impotence in life.

Also on another level, we see a partnership of white man and black man working together. One who used to represent a sense of aspiration to the struggling social change in the south for black people.  Jack Kennedy white catholic male symbol of social equality to disparaged blacks during the civil rights movement is now conversely portrayed as a black man eluding himself into thinking he’s the late President Kennedy represents how the boundaries of racial taboo can be blurred and even smashed to pieces by the use of satire.

The team form a bond and begin to seek out Bubba Ho-Tep to destroy him before he continues on his destructive path through the nursing home, feeding on the souls of the weak. The dialogue in this film is so richly hilarious and punchy that I’m sure a lot of the lines will be quoted in fanzines forever. And there are so many funny moments, like Elvis finding the Hieroglyphics on the wall of the bathroom stall. “Why is an ancient Egyptian hiding out in a Texas old folks home and writing on the shit house walls?” Jack explains that he eats souls, so he probably craps “soul residue”

There’s also a reference book that Jack uses where he gets his information as well as charms and prayers to ward off the evil fiend. It’s called The Everyday Man or Woman’s Book of The Soul

Jack and Elvis meet up in Jack’s room at night as Jack offers him a snack ” Would you like a ding dong? Well I don’t mean mine ” Jack has inexplicable insight into the motivation of this ancient fiend. He is the one who has inherently discovered that the mummy is feeding on souls. He’s The Soul Sucker.  He digests souls til they don’t exist anymore There’s a chapter for that in the book. And he’s most interested in small souls, like those of the residents in the rest home, because they are easy targets. At one point Jack states that he narrowly got away before the mummy sucked the soul from out of his anus. ” “He don’t want to be around If he comes back and wraps his lips around some elder’s asshole”

“Damn straight, come’s tonight I don’t want him slapping his lips on my asshole”

Ossie Davis delivers these lines with a regal elegance as if it were lifted from a Shakespearean tome. And Bruce Campbell’s Elvis is incredible as he spouts his dissatisfaction with himself and his life, still adorned in jewel encrusted rings and wide lense sunglasses. Both on a mission to acquire hero status and redeem themselves from being some of life’s castaways. Their mission not just to kill the mummy but to break out, like the Indian in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s an exploration of regrets and redemption, looking for that elusive thing, glory.