Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Bubba Ho-Tep first published by Movie Gazette, Oct 2004

In the Shady Rest Convalescence Home in Mud Creek, Texas, people are dying. No mystery there, you might think, as this is the final resting place for the aged, the infirm and the demented – yet an elderly patient (Bruce Campbell) with a cancerous ‘pecker’ who claims to be none other than Elvis Presley and merely masquerading as Elvis-impersonator Sebastian Haff (or is it the other way round?), becomes convinced by the strange, scarab-like bugs that keep appearing everywhere and by the hieroglyphic graffiti in the toilet that there is something more sinister at work. So he joins forces with another resident (Ossie Davis), who, despite being African-American, claims to be John F. Kennedy (“they dyed me this colour, all over – can you think of a better way to hide the truth than that?”) – and once Elvis has managed to persuade him that the shadowy killer is neither Fidel Castro nor Lyndon B. Johnson, together the two muddle-headed, forgotten American icons rediscover their mojo and take one last stand against an Egyptian mummy feeding on the very life force of the Shady Rest inmates (“your soul-suckin’ days are over, amigo”).

Bubba Ho-Tep is a confluence of perfect parts: a fantastically deranged premise (based on a short story by Joe Lansdale); a proven horror director (and writer) in Don Coscarelli, rightly famous for the Phantasm films (whose star, Reggie Bannister, has a cameo here as the rest home’s administrator); and of course Bruce Campbell, who as the long-suffering Ash in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy has written the book on horror comedy performances – and who near the end of the last Evil Dead film was already showing a talent for Elvis impersonation (“Hail to the King, baby”) rivalled only by Nicolas Cage. The central concept of Bubba Ho-Tep is hilariously unhinged, even if, once it has been unwrapped, the humour underneath can seem a little thin, consisting in little more than Elvis mannerisms and erection jokes. Still, the comic spectacle of two madmen entering battle supported respectively by a motorised wheelchair and a walking frame pays off with bizarre dividends.

As funny as it is to watch Elvis’ struggles with both Ho-Tep and reality, he cuts a far more desolate and depressed figure than your average comic hero, and his weary narration, full of regrets and mournful nostalgia (“How could I have gone from the king of rock n’ roll to this?”, “Twenty years ago I could have had her eating out of my asshole”, “If only I’d have treated Priscilla right, told my daughter I loved her”, etc.), lends all the absurd proceedings a bitter, if gently bitter, edge. For the true horror here, far from being some middle-eastern revenant in a cowboy hat, is the indignity of disease, the anonymity of old age, and the inevitability of death, and the only way to transcend them is to remain true to one’s own legend till the very last breath. This, in the end, is what really makes Bubba Ho-Tep stick in the mind – although ‘JFK’ explaining to Elvis why Ho-Tep should have spent time in the rest home’s toilets (“he’s just like anyone else when it comes to takin’ a dump – he just wants a nice clean place with a flush”) comes a close second.

Anton Bitel