Happy anniversary to “Bubba Ho-Tep”, an irreverent but important film about the fear of aging and refusing to go gentle into that good night.
The year is 2002. Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and former United States President John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis), or men who believe they are, live in an East Texas retirement home. The residents start dropping like flies. Sure, they’re old, but it turns out, the residents aren’t dying of natural causes.
A soul-sucking mummy, a “Bubba Ho-Tep,” is on the prowl and sucking the souls of the elderly residents. JFK and Elvis are the only people who can stop Bubba Ho-Tep’s soul-sucking rampage.
Years ago, when I first heard of this movie, I couldn’t resist it. The synopsis sounds completely ridiculous. But if you give it a chance, the film’s completely out-there scenario works very well. Some even say Bubba Ho-Tep is the perfect B-movie. It is a clever movie for a number of reasons.
Bubba Ho-Tep is brilliant in its irreverence.
Based on a novella of the same name written by Joe R. Lansdale, the story explores aging and mortality in a darkly comedic and twisted way.
Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, John Dies at the End) directed, co-produced, and wrote the screenplay.
First, Jack surmises that Bubba Ho-Tep is a soul-sucker based on the fact that he tried sucking Jack’s soul out through his ass. The next significant detail is that Jack and Elvis find hieroglyphs written on a bathroom stall. Jack surmises that Bubba Ho-Tep, after a good soul-sucking, needs to take a good dump. Therefore, he “shits the souls out.”
Jack has a library of books on ancient Egypt and human souls which allow him to decipher the hieroglyphs, which are just average raunchy comments that would be left in any bathroom stall, i.e., “Cleopatra does the nasty.” Jack also surmises that the mummy sucks out souls and then shits them out in the toilet.
Their anger at the fact that Bubba Ho-Tep can devour and shit out souls and flush them away to unknown oblivion is what spurs Jack and Elvis to take action. This gives them a renewed sense of purpose. It literally gets them out of bed and moving.
Death is handled with irreverent and dark humor in this movie.
There’s no shortage of toilet humor. The mummy uses scarab beetles to help him collect souls, which he eats, then shits out and flushes away. This irreverent way of dealing with death goes along with the old saying that life is too short.
We can die tomorrow by any means. A truck could run you over while crossing the street on your way to a convenience store to buy some bread. A person can slip and split their head open while taking a shower. We never know what’s going to happen.
Bubba Ho-Tep explores the fears that lie at the center of western culture — aging and death.
The best part of Bubba Ho-Tep is how having a purpose spurs two aging men who had given up on life.
The story features two main characters who are larger-than-life personas from real life. How could a man like JFK or Elvis Presley feel worthless? Old age is sucking the life out of them in a retirement home where the residents have little autonomy and are treated like children by a staff that puts out the vibe that they really don’t want to be bothered.
The retirement home is depicted as a dreary and depressing place where people are left to die.
All of the younger characters are put out by having to do anything for the residents. At the beginning of the film, Elvis’s roommate dies. His daughter, Callie, who never visited him, just shoves his belongings in a bag to donate to Goodwill and throws his military medals away. Callie and the nurse listen to Elvis’s story but laugh at him right in front of him.
The atmosphere at the nursing home is dreary and depressing with an almost funereal quality, especially put across by the presence of a hearse out front.
The hearse driver (Daniel Roebuck) unquestioningly picks up body after body, one day after the next.
There’s also the condescending nurse, effectively played by Ella Joyce, who begrudgingly does her job at the home between cigarette breaks.
She makes it clear that she’s put out by having to fulfill her duties as a nurse. She and other characters, including the retirement home’s director (Reggie Bannister) and a young woman named Callie (Heidi Marnhout) who comes to clear out her deceased father’s belongings, are all irritatingly condescending towards the residents.
Finding out the culprit behind the deaths at the nursing home gives them both a renewed purpose in life.
They are old, they have aches and pains, and they aren’t as fast as they used to be. But when faced with a soul-sucking mummy — the end of mortality as they know it — they refuse to go down without a fight. They do it also for a sense of community; they can save the lives of the other residents.
As the two begin to investigate, the characters grow stronger. They go from being in their pajamas and mainly in their rooms to moving around. Jack dons a suit and takes a trip to do research, and Elvis explores the grounds with his walker.
When the time comes to face Bubba Ho-Tep, Jack is dressed in his best suit and Elvis in one of the singer’s trademark studded white bell-bottom jumpsuits, complete with a cape.
Bubba Ho-Tep pokes fun at conspiracy theories, in a playful sense, with the choice of main characters.
Elvis and JFK, have both been the subject of many conspiracy theories.
During the ‘80s, I recall the theory about Elvis Presley being alive. Elvis’ supposedly faked death in 1977 was the subject of books and popular daytime talk shows at the time. Apparently, this has continued with Elvis being sighted as an extra in the film, Home Alone, working as a groundskeeper in Memphis, supposedly attending his own 82nd birthday celebration in Memphis, and even hiding in Argentina as part of the Witness Protection Program.
JFK’s assassination has also been a subject of conspiratorial analysis for many years.
We have these two characters who are the embodiment of conspiracy theories who uncover yet another conspiracy theory. The residents are dying. However, they are elderly and anyone would assume they were dying of natural causes.
Instead, it’s a mummy sucking out their souls — the most outlandish thing anyone could come up with.
Bubba Ho-Tep uses the most bizarre scenario imaginable to illustrate basic truths about life or human nature and also to point out some of our more ridiculous quirks and qualities.
Despite the film’s campy and bizarre premise, the actors play it seriously.
Campbell and Davis have perfect chemistry as Elvis and JFK.
Their performances are flawless.
The way Elvis and JFK are introduced to the audience is concise and effective. We know who these guys are right away. We get a good feeling of the environment that they’re in and how they got there — or believe they got there.
Campbell and Davis don’t play their roles over the top or as caricatures at all. Campbell is really playing Elvis Presley, and Davis seems very sincere in his belief that he is JFK.
Presley is known as Sebastian Haff, a former Elvis impersonator. Tired of fame and the three-ring circus that comes along with it, Elvis decides to switch places with Haff. The two had a contract that would allow Presley to return to his former life. However, the contract was destroyed after Presley accidentally blew up Haff’s trailer in a barbecuing accident. Of course, Haff is the one who actually died at Graceland.
Film critic Roger Ebert points out that the tone of Coscarelli’s film isn’t campy. In his review, he writes:
“BUBBA HO-TEP has a lot of affection for Elvis, takes him seriously, and — this is crucial — isn’t a camp horror movie, but treats this loony situation as if it’s really happening.”
This is part of what makes the movie work so well. The plot sounds campy, but it isn’t played that way at all. Coscarelli gives the sense of time just flying by as Elvis lies in bed, speeding up the action with nurses coming in and out of Elvis’ room, indicating that time is passing by.
Jack is played by African American actor Ossie Davis. When Elvis points out that JFK was white, Jack simply says, “they dyed me.”
While not a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, Bubba Ho-Tep has achieved cult status and there’s even been talk of a sequel.
That rumored sequel is titled Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She Vampires.
However, if a sequel is made, it will have to be without Bruce Campbell. In a 2018 interview, Campbell told EW:
“I told the creators that I didn’t want to dance around it anymore. I feel that the first one was a nice little gem, and you don’t have to make a sequel for everything. Don Coscarelli, god bless him, go make it. You know, get somebody else. They had Ron Perlman at one point. Knock yourself out.”
EW quotes Campbell commenting on Twitter:
“I have officially retired from playing Elvis as well. Joe and Don both know this. To me, each character has a lifespan. Elvis was best as a one-shot deal — an iconic character in a really unique setting, guided by a great director. Why repeat?”
To quote Campbell’s character, Sebastian/Elvis: “Don’t f*ck with the King!”
Whatever happens, we’ll always have Bubba Ho-Tep.
Landsdale created the quirky original story that Coscarelli, Campbell, and Davis visualized into a film that is still talked about 20 years later.
What makes it a great film? Its irreverent treatment of a very serious subject.
To some, the more serious and more frightening the subject, the more of a need there is to trivialize and even laugh at it. This doesn’t make light of death or try to sweep it under the rug, but helps us face the inevitable head-on or maybe makes it easier for us to deal with.
After 20 years, Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep holds up because of its timeless and universal themes of our culture’s fear of aging and mortality.