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cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Reggie Bannister, Ella Joyce, and Larry Pennell
director: Don Coscarelli
92 minutes (R) 2002 MGM NTSC VHS retail
reviewed by Amy Harlib
Cult-favourite genre director Don Coscarelli
The Beastmaster), inspired by Joe R. Lansdale's award-winning short story, also
scripted this one-of-a-kind indie horror-comedy, far wittier and meatier than any odd
pairing Abbott and Costello made with Universal Pictures monsters back in the day. It also
helps that the filmmaker got possibly the greatest of undeservedly underrated, cult favourite,
B-picture actors, Bruce Campbell to star in what turns out to be his finest performance ever.
Bubba Ho-Tep, a decidedly odd and wacky project making the limited
distribution rounds of the art house circuit, deserves the wide audiences it probably won't
get, for its inspired quirkiness proved too befuddling to get the backing of the narrow-minded
bean-counters in the major studios.
The film opens with a newsreel style prologue about how, 3,000 odd years ago,
a relative of Pharaoh Amen Ho-Tep was mummified, interred and cursed, remaining undiscovered
until the early 1900s. Then, archaeologists unearthed this exciting find and toured it to
museums all around the United States until the prize exhibit was mysteriously stolen and then
lost in a travel accident somewhere in the wilds of the Lone Star state.
Cut to present-day Mud Creek, Texas, and the Shady Rest Nursing Home where
an aged, greying, Elvis Presley, king of rock 'n' roll, (brilliantly portrayed by Bruce
Campbell), resides while recovering from a broken hip and a prolonged comatose condition.
In voiceover narration and in dialogue, Elvis reveals how disturbing dreams, memories of
his younger days and regrets constantly torment him along with guilt, remorse and depression.
We come to learn about Elvis' past in great emotional detail - from his motivations for
exchanging identities with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff (also played by Bruce
Campbell) to the unfortunate stage tumble and subsequent injuries that forced him to end up
in Mud Creek obscurity. Elvis' sorrow over leaving his wife and daughter; his misery and
obsessive anxiety about a possibly cancerous growth on his pecker and the gooey ointment
treatments for same; his enduring his life story not being believed by nearly everyone; and
his suffering the particularly grating, patronising attitudes of his nurse (Ella Joyce) and
the Rest Home Administrator (Reggie Bannister) - all make the protagonist totally sympathetic
and believable, especially because Campbell's speech, body language and make-up synergistically
create a perfect persona filled with humanity.
Equally fine in the role of Elvis' best buddy and the only person who
believes he is 'The King', we find Ossie Davis wonderfully playing Jack, an elderly black
gentleman convinced he's JFK (!) with his assassination faked and his appearance altered
because of a vast conspiracy. Davis brings such a deft mixture of affable conviction and
gravitas to his character's good-natured nuttiness, that the performance rings true.
Thus, when bizarre-looking, fierce, abnormally giant beetles infest the
Shady Rest foreshadowing the swiftly following arrival of a scary, skulking entity that
causes a rash of fatalities among the geriatric residents - Jack becomes alarmed. Soon Jack
himself gets attacked and, fortunately surviving thanks to judiciously wielding his cane,
he convinces Elvis to aid him. How the senior pair sleuth out the nature of their foe by
examining clues (from strange hieroglyphs scrawled on bathroom stalls to information in
dusty tomes) and by wild speculations; and how they discover a new zeal and purpose in
living by heroically deciding to save their fellow inmates from having their souls sucked
out through their 'arseholes' by a mummy sporting a cowboy hat and matching boots - makes
for a hilarious, exciting, and differently daft film.
Don Coscarelli's deft direction and clever script loaded with witty lines
and heartfelt subtext about the sadness and loneliness of aged folks abandoned in nursing
homes, makes Bubba Ho-Tep an unusual cross-genre treat with more depth than usual.
The film makes a virtue of its low budget by focusing on enthralling its audience through
character development, balancing humour and suspense and emotional veracity rather with just
enough visual gimmickry to do the tale-telling job.
Brian Tyler's excellent, eclectic, atmospheric score certainly helps,
complementing the superb performances (including supporting player Larry Pennell as the
geriatric masked, scene-stealing Kemosabe). Coscarelli makes good use of flashbacks to
detail telling scenes from Elvis' life and to explain the Mummy's origins, the latter in
some surprisingly historically accurate-looking, all-too-brief images. Bubba Ho-Tep himself
(Bob Ivy) makes for a suitably creepy menace, paradoxically absurdly cheesy and chilling at
the same time - attitude, make-up and special effects that effectively parodies and embodies
the horror genre simultaneously.
The film Bubba Ho-Tep will be ecstatic viewing for Bruce Campbell
fans, Coscarelli admirers, genre buffs in general and any adventurous soul willing to try
seeing a refreshingly different feature that offers: thrills; chills; genuinely poignant
emotion; pop-culture delight in its fond spoofing of the tropes of heartland Americana;
and lots of laugh-out-loud moments. Let's hope that the production itself will find its
audience. Meanwhile, Bubba Ho-Tep remains one of the most memorably weird, warped
and fun experiences ever to stalk the byways of cinema.