DIRECTOR: Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Beastmaster)

WRITER: Don Coscarelli, based on a story by Joe Lansdale (Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo and Dead in the West)

STARRING: Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead) and Ossie Davis (Do the Right Thing)

Now, based on those names you’re probably expecting a really gory movie with a lot of slapstick horror comedy and a variation of Bruce Campbell’s old Ash routine. Part of a series, most likely. So let’s tally up the body count and all the other statistics that horror fans like to compare, and see if Bubba Ho-Tep matches up.

  • BODY COUNT: Somewhere between 3 and 10, depending on whether you count deaths from natural causes and dead people in visions.
  • GORE: quick flashes of blood in a vision.
  • NUDITY: 1 pair of rouged nipples seen for about one second in a vision, and one upskirt flash.
  • PREQUELS: none.
  • SEQUELS: not likely.

Not what you expected, is it? You’re not alone. When I saw Bubba Ho-Tep the other night, I sat in front of a group of dedicated horror fans who were talking about Phantasm. I’ve never seen it, but if you believe the guys behind me it was better than Dead Alive, Videodrome and the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie put together. They had high expectations from Bubba Ho-Tep. When we left, one of them was joyfully calling it a work of genius, and another one was vociferously proclaiming it a vile piece of shit. I can sympathize with the second guy, and I’m sure he knows all kinds of horror trivia and cinematic techniques, but I still think he’s a narrowminded idiot, and if I invite somebody over for a Saturday evening movie marathon it’s going to be the first guy.

Okay, so Bruce Campbell plays an old washout living in a Texas retirement home. The staff all think of him as Sebastian Haff, an Elvis impersonator, but he insists that he is the real Elvis and that the one who died was Sebastian Haff. In various flashbacks narrated by Campbell, we see how he, Elvis, got tired of the high life and the sycophants, and went down to Texas one day to meet with Sebastian Haff, switched places with him, and never looked back until now. Now, of course, he’s dying, and he’s overflowing with regrets. He has arrhythmia and an enormous growth on his pecker, which he suspects is cancer but nobody wants to tell him because they’re all expecting him to die soon anyway. Everybody under the age of sixty thinks he’s a joke, and his closest friends are an old black man who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy and a scrawny old geezer who thinks he’s the Lone Ranger. It’s not until their much-reviled retirement home gets invaded by a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy that any of these guys find anything even remotely worth living for.

This could all be material for a standard Hollywood comedy about crazy old men. But Campbell plays Elvis/Sebastian dead serious, and it seems like the role he was born to play. These guys may seem like jokes to us at first, but gradually we come to see them as they see themselves, real human beings who have been betrayed by their bodies, their families and Time. When Elvis and JFK set off on their monster-slaying expedition, looking like Buffy and the Scooby Gang in wheelchairs and walkers, it’s undeniably a comedy moment. But there’s a certain majesty to it as well, a silly kind of majesty played even better in the Lone Ranger’s wonderful death scene. I feel sorry for any member of the audience who sits through this scene unaffected. I wanted to laugh and cheer and cry all at once.

Am I reading too much into a silly, no-budget horror comedy that unashamedly includes lines like “Suck the dog dick of Anubis, ass-wipe!”? Probably. And that is Bubba Ho-Tep’s greatest weakness. It tries to be dramatic and horrifying and funny in turns, and leaves a little to be desired in all departments. Its billing as a horror movie is genuinely misleading, as it has a few really creepy moments, but the horror is diluted by everything else to the point where the average horror fan will feel cheated. And most people will find it impossible to take BHT very seriously. Because come on, dude, it’s a horror comedy with Ash in it, directed by the guy who did Phantasm.

But if you’re tired of cloned gorefests with impossibly high body counts, don’t feel like watching method actors limp through their Oscar moments, and wish you could find a comedy that wasn’t about high school or uni, Bubba Ho-Tep comes highly recommended. It’s not a perfect representative of any of the genres it combines, but it’s still a more honest effort than any of the big-name genre projects out in the last few months. And Bruce Campbell’s Elvis-as-an-old-guy-who-may-be-crazy is absolutely the best Elvis tribute I’ve ever seen.


Update: Latest word in Spring '07 is that, if Bruce Campbell isn't just full of shit, there may actually be a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep. If you watched Bubba all the way through the credits, you already know what it's called. Yes, really.

Bubba Ho-Tep is one of my favorite 2003 movies. It's an extremely adept adaptation of Joe Lansdale's novella of the same name by director Don Coscarelli. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis are wonderful in their respective roles as elderly men who may or may not be Elvis and JFK stuck in a nursing home in Mud Creek, Texas* who must do battle with an Egyptian mummy who is brought to unlife after his museum box is dumped in a creek near the home.

The low-budget movie circulated the U.S. in extremely limited release last year. Lucy-S and I took my nephew to see while it played in Columbus for a week -- to sold-out showings, no less -- at our local art house theater, the Drexel. Afterward, many people my nephew talked about the movie to in his home town wouldn't believe it was an actual movie.

However, now that Bubba Ho-Tep has been released on DVD, everyone who missed it in theaters can get themselves a copy. And in my book, it's an excellent purchase for any movie fan's library. I bought my nephew one just so he could prove to all his friends he didn't just make the whole thing up.

The movie is wonderful all the way around, with great performances from everyone, right down to the smallest supporting character. It's got all of Lansdale's trademark humor and off-center poignancy.

The transfer is gorgeous, and seeing it again (this time on the small screen) made me appreciate the director's use of comic-book angles more than I did inb the theater. There's a surprising amount of extras, but the single biggest reason to own this (aside from having the movie itself) is for the secondary audio track where Bruce Campbell as Elvis comments on the film as if he's seeing it for the first time. It's basically a 90-minute performance piece, and it's utterly hysterical.

What surprised me upon my second (and third) viewing (yes, I watched it twice -- c'mon, you know I have no life) was that there are countless little throwaway character bits that I didn't catch the first (or even second) time. A lot of love went into the making of this movie, a lot of care was taken, and the result -- even if you have some quibbles about it -- is undeniably a unique (in the dictionary sense of the word) movie: you ain't ever seen nothin' like this before.

The other surprise was the level of poignancy in the movie; this thing would have been a disaster if the filmmakers had decided to make fun of the elderly, or to play its two lead characters for laughs; they don't. The characters -- outrageous as they are -- are treated with respect and given dignity, and I was shocked that during the "salute" moment near the end, I actually got a little choked up.

Helluva good movie, a new cult classic (as it deserves to be -- the masses aren't ready for something like this).

If I had a movie review column, I'd most definitely give this sucker ***1/2, hands-down -- and it's ***1/2 instead of **** because I have a quibble -- I think it takes just a tad too long to set up its premise, but that in no way diminishes the enjoyment.

* They shot the movie on-location in an actual nursing home in the actual town of Mud Creek, Texas. When you watch the movie, you'll notice that aside from JFK's room, the home looks pretty run-down. The home had been closed down temporarily for badly-needed repairs.

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