Don Coscarelli Review – Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Bubba Ho-Tep release poster.jpg

Whilst I’m talking about Don Coscarelli, and I’ve talked about Bruce Campbell in the past, I think it’s time I address what is, in my opinion, their finest movie to date: Bubba Ho-Tep. Bubba Ho-Tep is based upon the novella of the same name by cult author Joe R. Lansdale. It is a quirky horror/comedy romp about an aging Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) living in a rest home who, alongside an old man who believes himself to be a skin dyed John F. Kennedy with a bag of sand for a brain (Ossie Davis), battles against a soul-sucking redneck mummy that they dub a “Bubba Ho-Tep”. It was made on a low budget of $1,000,000, hence why there are no actual images of the real Elvis Presley or even one of his songs, but it wasn’t a huge success at the box office; only raking in a $200,000 profit. However, Bubba Ho-Tep would become one of Don Coscarelli’s highest rated films by both critics and fans alike. Rolling Stone’s article about Bubba Ho-Tep stated: “This absurdly clever caper is elevated by Bruce Campbell’s pensive Elvis into a moving meditation on the diminutions of age and the vagaries of fame.” Roger Ebert gave Bubba Ho-Tep three out of four stars and stated: “It has the damnedest ingratiating way of making us sit there and grin at its hare-brained audacity, laugh at its outhouse humour, and be somewhat moved (not deeply, but somewhat) at the poignancy of these two old men and their situation.”

For me, however, I find Bubba Ho-Tep to be a really likable movie. I find its story quite gripping despite all the quirky wackiness that coats every single scene. The reason behind this is the fact that although the idea of a story revolving around an aging Elvis and JFK in a care home sounds rather silly and disingenuous, the plot makes a realistic attempt at making this premise believable. The whole movie revolves around Elvis’ story about switching places with an impersonator before he got too famous for his own liking, before winding up in an accident and ending up in a care home with no family around him. The story goes as far to make Elvis’ story quite sobering and sympathetic as he continuously talks about seeing his daughter in an attempt to ‘put things right’. Although it may seem absurd on paper, Elvis is actually the straight man in this weird and wacky story about an Egyptian Mummy who sucks souls out of the butts of old people; as he takes a cynical, yet logical approach to the world around him. Nonetheless, Elvis’ borderline tragic situation and constant narration of his own pathetic life is actually relatable on a human degree. From the start of the film until the end, Elvis is portrayed as a very flawed character: he’s bitter, abrasive, depressed, waiting for death, and all this is because he’s lost his lust for life and is searching for a new one in a pretty hopeless situation with no family and no friends, so he gets wrapped up in nostalgia as a coping mechanism. Although his situation is a very peculiar one, it’s a situation that I feel can resonate with many: the search for a life’s meaning and the crushing fears and realities of growing old with nothing left to live for. It’s harsh, sobering, but both very sympathetic and empathetic as one can feel emotionally invested with Elvis when his vitality has returned and he sets out on the most important mission of his life, albeit near the end of his life. Bubba Ho-Tep gives Elvis’ story one of great hope, something that an audience can rally behind and, despite the wackiness that coats the entire plot, Elvis’ story is quite a powerhouse of emotion and sentimentality, one that I personally find gripping from the very beginning of the movie to the ending, an ending which emotionally hits me every time I experience it.

On the other hand, JFK’s story is so wacky that not even Elvis believes that he’s genuinely JFK. In terms of the story, JFK is the comic relief to Elvis’ straight-faced cynicism. He’s the driving force that pulls Elvis into the plot and the bond that they share throughout the movie is quite close, pulled together by the arrival of the Bubba Ho-Tep. The interesting thing to note about JFK’s character is the fact that the revelation of whether he is genuinely JFK, or just a senile old man is something that’s left to the audience’s interpretation. However, the question of if he is or isn’t JFK doesn’t bear down on the overall plot, which is how cinematic ambiguities should be done.

As for the Bubba Ho-Tep himself, this ‘villain’ is one of the most unintimidating villains in horror history. He has very little backstory and isn’t really that threatening as he prays on the senile, and has very limited power. The creature isn’t very well designed and only has a couple of things appearance wise that gives him character, but the film focuses on its supernatural powers more than its character. There’s a bit of backstory that gets revealed about who the Bubba Ho-Tep used to be, but in the scope of the plot, the Bubba Ho-Tep’s backstory is incredibly unnecessary. I came away from this movie thinking that the Bubba Ho-Tep himself was just unimportant, literally a circumstantial being that can be replaced with literally anything else. This is because I feel that the story is not about the Bubba Ho-Tep, it’s about Elvis and his search for life’s meaning in a depressing situation.

In terms of acting, Bubba Ho-Tep is, in my opinion, Bruce Campbell’s greatest performance, or at least the greatest one I’ve seen of yet. Although parts of the character are quite caricatured, such as the look, the hair and the accent, Bruce Campbell thoroughly sells the character of a sad, sympathetic, senile Elvis with fantastic mannerisms and a great voice impersonation to boot. Bruce Campbell’s narration is absolutely amazing to hear because the personality of his character translates through his voice clearly. I feel that Bruce Campbell thoroughly enjoyed and embraced his role as Elvis, and the end result is far better than his work with Sam Raimi on The Evil Dead. Bubba Ho-Tep proves that Bruce Campbell is a fantastic character actor, and his performance is always a treat to see. He overshadows all the other performers yet at the same time, he bounces off them perfectly to create a whole bucketload of memorable, quotable, and highly creative moments.

In terms of technicality, it’s very obvious to see that Bubba Ho-Tep is a very low-budget affair. The majority of the film occurs in a handful of bare settings with a few props added in for decoration, the special effects are quite ropey and unconvincing at best, and there aren’t very many co-stars alongside Elvis and JFK, with Ella Joyce’s nurse character and Don Coscarelli’s old friend Reggie Bannister as the home’s director standing out amongst the rest. Nonetheless, whatever the film lacked in budget it more than made up for in creativity and skill. The make-up is absolutely amazing, especially on Bruce Campbell’s senile Elvis. although it’s somewhat over the top, Melanie Tooker (Makeup Application: Elvis) did a fantastic job at convincingly making Bruce Campbell look 30 years older than he was.

However, most of the creativity comes from the editing department. The editing may be somewhat clunky and distracting at times, but the film lines up scenes with beautiful music, keeping a great pace throughout the movie. However, the greatest aspect of the post-production of Bubba Ho-Tep is that it pays close attention to colour themes during particular scenes to create a powerfully evoking atmosphere, and it’s fairly obvious that a lot of the colour was added in post-production. Bubba Ho-Tep keeps a strong theme with the colours, sunset colours for the more emotional moments and a harsh use of cold blue and green hues for more horror focused sequences, and I find this absolutely genius. It’s incredibly effective and I wish that more independent horror films would utilize this motif instead of relying on either overly stylised lighting or natural lighting that adds nothing to the film.

I love this movie. I truly think that it’s Don Coscarelli’s best movie (aside from the original Phantasm), and it’s one of the best novella adaptations I’ve seen simply because it translates the emotional impact of the story onscreen with barely any imperfections. The worst thing I could say about this movie is the low-budget, but Don Coscarelli didn’t work well on large budgets so this movie feels like he’s in his perfected comfort zone. Whilst watching this movie I saw quite a few techniques and plot-threads that would inspire the greater moments of Phantasm 5 which proves even Don Coscarelli loved this project. Hell, even Bruce Campbell loved this movie because he took it with him during his book tour for his autobiography: “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor”. Personally, I also love this movie. I can look over any of the film’s flaws, sit back, and enjoy it. Apparently, a prequel, Bubba Nosferatu: Curse Of The She Vampires, has been in the works for ages, but I don’t believe this movie needs any other entry. To me, it stands alone perfectly. It’s one of my personal favourite horror films, and I highly recommend it to others.

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