There are different breeds of weird, to be sure, and I won't say Bubba Ho-Tep is as aggressively bizarre as the previous “weirdies." Its oddness is measured out sparser, and at a much more deliberate pace. However, I do realize I’m in deep with this kind of stuff and a movie about Elvis and JFK teaming-up against an evil mummy would be plenty strange for most normal, life-loving, rational people. What they’ll find here, however, is that the weirdest aspect of this movie isn’t the plot - - it’s the tone. Moment to moment, it feels more like a low-key drama than the lurid horror flick it sounds like. It almost puts you under a spell that makes you forget how absurd what you’re witnessing really is. “Slow burn” probably isn’t the right term. I’d say it’s better compared to the unflinching stare of some nut at the Grayhound station who’s telling you a creepy story that you know has to be a put-on, but you're still not sure.
Just read this plot aloud...
Elvis’ death was faked. The real king of Rock ‘N Roll swapped places with an impersonator in the 70s and he’s now wasting away in a sleepy Texas nursing home where his days are consumed with bitter regrets about bygone fame, an estranged family and an ugly, decidedly-inconvenient penile growth. When a resurrected Egyptian lord begins terrorizing the rest home and stealing its seniors’ souls, Elvis enlists the aide of a fellow patient with equally-dubious claims of importance. This one happens to be a wheelchair-bound black man who tells everybody he's JFK.
Sounds like a light, nutty romp, right? Watch this trailer, then…
That felt like a cold 'n coiled scary movie, didn’t it? See what I’m saying about the tone?
For a flick that sounds like something you’d watch in the lurid grindhouses of yesteryear, Bubba Ho-Tep actually has a surprising amount of pathos. I wouldn’t say there’s a lot, but there’s just enough to take it seriously and maybe even get a little emotionally moved by what happens between the pecker jokes and “walker-bound kung-fu grandpa vs. undead juggernaut” duels. The number of weird movies in Bruce Campbell’s filmography are probably only behind the number in Clint Howard’s and El Santo’s, but the King of B-Movies actually gets to show a bit more range than usual in this one. His over-the-hill Elvis is an on-the-mark impression that never oversteps into caricature and his voiceovers weave the wince-inducing crude with the somberly-lucid reflective in a way that anybody who’s had a willful, crotchety Grandpa will appreciate.
Just watch how his Elvis handles a cursed scarab he calls “one big bitch cockroach…”
Getting back to what I was saying about this movie being like one long staring match, the late Ossie Davis’ performance is striking for just how straight he plays it. His wild tales of the Kennedy assassination and LBJ’s conspiracy to hide him by dying his skin black carefully tread the boundaries of taste by presenting this “secret history” with earnest conviction, while still keeping its veracity uncertain. Like the aforementioned bus station bum’s story, you’ve got two, equally-valid ways to read Bubba Ho-Tep and that’s really the beauty of it. Either Campbell and Davis really are in the right, and they’ve spiraled so far from their hay days that they’re helpless to convince anybody of the truth; or they’re sad old men who’ve concocted these elaborate fictions to cope with their mediocre lives in retirement. Be they conspiracy victims or senile seniors, the duo still make damned interesting opponents for a monster.
We’ve been advancing through the decades with each of these weird pictures and it’s honestly a little surreal to be writing a retrospective about this one, because I distinctly remember watching it at a nice little art house theater in ’03. Supposedly, Campbell and Don Coscarelli, the director, only made around 30 prints and then aggressively toured them cross-country. As it happened, the mighty chin introduced the movie at the other art theater in Chicago the very night I saw it. The low budget begot the extremely-limited release which, in turn, begot the flick a level of mystique you rarely find in this day of instant streaming.
A 30 print run is a sign of a shrewd release platform, but it's also a sign of a budget low enough that every decision has to be made carefully. Thus, the locations don’t change much and the effects are intentionally cheesy, but there's an uneasy sense of surrealism created by certain things being addressed-yet-unaddressed. Specifically, you have a whole movie about Elvis that can never actually uses any of his expensive-to-license songs. There's a very sparse, moody score that sounds almost like an acoustic take on John Carpenter’s catalog, instead, and it's probably more appropriate than downbeat covers of “Hound Dog” or “Heartbreak Hotel" would've been. You almost feel like Campbell's Elvis, fighting to hold onto traces of the past, and the absence of such huge fundamentals make everything feel as out-of-place as a good horror movie should.So, like I've said, it's the tone that's king in Bubba Ho-Tep. I make it sound like such a serious affair, but there's still plenty of laughs to be had at rude, hieroglyphic grafitti and Elvis feeble threats to use "his stuff." Clips aren’t as plentiful online as those for the other “weirdies” have been, but it is available on Netflix’s instant stream, right now. I watched on that just before writing this and I’ll admit that the novelty has worn off a little, but it’s still required viewing for any serious appreciator of weird cinema.