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Movie Review: Bubba Ho Tep

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002 MGM Dir. Don Coscarelli)


You know, this shouldn’t work. This shouldn’t even BE a movie. It sounds like a joke. Elvis and JFK fight a mummy in a Texas rest home. I mean… how do you take that movie seriously for even a second? Well, Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis make you take them seriously. You kind of have to take it seriously because they take it all so seriously. They have so much heart they sweep you away with them. Also, since it’s sort of a comedy horror, they draw you in with a laugh before making you scream. The story is based on a novella, by Joe R. Lansdale which I haven’t read, but there is a segment of it on the DVD. You get to hear an audio excerpt. I keep thinking I need to get it and give it a read, and then I never do because I’m busy and I fear it would hurt the movie in my eyes.


The movie doesn’t exactly start fast, but then it isn’t supposed to. What we have here is a slow burn. Elvis, or a man claiming to be Elvis, is living in a Texas retirement home. His best friend, or at least a man he can tolerate, is a black man claiming to be John F. Kennedy. He had a friend in a man who dressed up like a cowboy and went by the name of Kemosabe, but he doesn’t even remember Elvis anymore. Now, we’re told that Elvis is an impersonator who lives in this home after breaking his hip, but the story he tells is a little different. I like that each person has their own tale to tell, and I like that we never do get the truth. Knowing would ruin the movie, even if you have an idea, you don’t want to know for sure.


He tells a sad tale about not wanting to be him anymore. A tale of loss and of misery, told by a man who had been on top of the world. He claims that he swapped lives with an impersonator who then died in his place. And of course JFK claims his head is filled with sand and that his brain is in a jar. Jack’s room is made up as a JFK memorial, filled with photos, models and even the presidential blue carpet of his floor. Are the stories true? Are they just insane? Is there way more going on than we know? Does it matter? Actually, in my view, it would ruin the movie to know the answer. The perfection of this movie is the not knowing. You should always wonder about everyone in this film, from Elvis down to the funeral homes guys.


There is quite a good statement on aging, getting old and being old here. Strangely, they manage to address the indignity of living in a home and having to have nurses take care of you without turning the people who work for the home into monsters. They’re not terribly sympathetic you understand, they’re condescending and treat the old folk like children, but they’re not bad people. They’re just people like you and I who have to deal with people who are no longer completely able to look after themselves. It’s important to make this note, because it would have been so much easier to make them lazy, stupid, mean, or ugly. It would have been easier to make them sympathetic and kindly. Making them nice, but disinterested was a tough way to go and it required good work by all involved.


If it seems like I’m taking a long time getting to the good stuff, it’s because it takes a while. Almost a third of the movie goes by without having anything horrific happen. You’re just given an introduction to the characters for the first half hour along with explaining their stories in such a way that you care about them. The horror starts small, with evil bugs attacking people. Which makes for an amusing scene with Elvis against the bug. This leads to Jack admitting that he knows Elvis is actually Elvis, which sort of makes them BFF right there and then.


The two now begin their investigation, finding hieroglyphics in the public toilet. They find that there is a mummy wandering around their old folks home, sucking the souls from the residents. Jack knows because he narrowly escaped having his soul sucked out through his ass. The two read up on the occult, discuss what they’re dealing with. The mummy, as it turns out, is a cowboy hat and boot-wearing monster from beyond the grave. After watching one of their friends die from a heart attack while driving the monster off, they decide to do something about it.


A little investigation, a little preparation, and our heroes are ready to go. This is a truly beautiful moment. Somehow, seeing an elderly Elvis and an old black JFK going out to do one last great task, it works. Within the confines of this movie, because of these two actors, and because of everything we’ve been through, it works. I can’t explain it, you have to watch it, but it works. It’s like everything else in this movie, it works in spite of the huge handicap you think it should have, it works.


The fight between JFK, Elvis & Bubba Ho-Tep is pretty engaging, but not very good to talk about, mostly because I’m too busy watching it to write about it. When Jack dies, it suddenly doesn’t matter if you believe he’s JFK or not, he’s done enough in our eyes to warrant a lump in your throat. It’s not because he’s the president, it’s because we really like him. And then, as soon as he dies, we get a joke about the magic words that are supposed to send the mummy away. That’s how this movie is. Jokes, horror and heart.


Elvis kills the monster, but we’re pretty much given to understand that he’s fatally injured in the process. As Elvis passes, he comments that he’s saved the day and that all will be well now. I keep wondering why this movie works, and I keep having different answers. In the end, it’s because they give us the most ridiculous story idea, and they make it work. Who can ask for more than that?


October 9, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | ,

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