Movie Review: BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce

Written and Directed by: Don Coscarelli

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This review is kind of a cheat; not only have I seen Bubba Ho-tep before many times, I also own it on DVD. But as much as I’ve enjoyed watching it in the past, I never really put too much thought into it besides “Elvis and JFK fight a mummy at a rest home and that’s hilarious”. By committing to a review, it would get to me to really concentrate on the movie and not just have it on in the background to occasionally look up at and smirk. And I’m glad I did it; while Bubba Ho-tep is wonderful for its quirkiness and great performances, it was the underlying commentary about growing old that really grabbed me. Bubba Ho-tep is a lot smarter than people give it credit for and more over, is not just a quirky premise. There’s more to it than that.

Based off a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-tep stars Bruce Campbell as Sebastian Haff, an elderly man who lives at a run-down rest home in East Texas. He also happens to believe he’s the real Elvis Presley, not the impostor he switched with who then went on to eat and drink himself to death. Unfortunately no one believes him. His routine of boredom and waiting to die is shaken up when he discovers that there’s a mummy invading the rest home and eating the souls of the elderly in order to continue living. Haff teams up with Jack (Ossie Davis), an old man who believes he’s actually John F. Kennedy despite being black and not dead, to find a way to stop this Bubba Ho-tep (DERP!) from killing everyone around the home.

Admittedly, Bubba Ho-tep seems like it would be a movie that is all quirky premise and no execution but a variety of factors keep it afloat. First and foremost, the casting of Bruce Campbell as Sebastian Haff/Elvis Presley is inspired and a perfect fit. Campbell has been given a lot of flack over the years for his roles in B-grade films, but there is true talent inside of him and it comes to the forefront here. Not only is he funny in his cynicism about the current state of his life and his impending death, but Campbell also gives the character a real layer of heartbreak and regret to make him flesh and blood. Even his funnier moments still have an aura of sadness to them, and it makes for a compelling performance. Ossie Davis is great as well as the even crazier Jack and he has an even bigger mountain to climb; it’s sort of easy to believe that Haff could be Elvis but that Jack is really the slain President Kennedy? That’s hard to pull off. It isn’t entirely successful, possibly on purpose, but Davis still brings dignity to a quirky role. Campbell and Davis make a great elderly crime fighting team and have wonderful chemistry together as well, making you want to see what they’ll do next and how they’ll defeat the undead menace.

The bulk of the movie is Elvis and Jack, but Bubba Ho-tep also delivers on some of the minor characters as well. Ella Joyce is hilarious and at times a bit frustrating as The Nurse, who cares for the elderly at the Mud Creek Shady Rest but also treats them with very little respect. The two Hearse drivers (played by Daniel Roebuck and Reggie Bannister) amount to cameo roles but have brief moments that lighten the mood, especially when they accidentally drop a body into the bushes. These three and others give the Mud Creek Shady Rest more of a personality than one would have thought.

But while the movie is funny and features some truly inspired casting and performances, Bubba Ho-tep‘s true strength lies in the subtext. Yes the movie features the elderly against a mummy in cowboy boots, but it’s not really about that; it’s about the struggles and pains of growing old, of getting to a point where you are no longer taken seriously as a human and are looked upon like a child. A particular scene where the daughter of Haff’s late roommate comes in to collect his belongings, is especially illustrative of this. The girl, Callie, bends down to pick something up giving Haff a full view of her underwear which would be great if it wasn’t truly insulting. She isn’t trying to seduce him; she just doesn’t consider him to be sexually threatening enough to do anything about it. He has ceased to be a man in her eyes. Callie and The Nurse also listen in to Haff’s story on how he switched roles with an Elvis impersonator, but do so with a giant smirk on their face, finding it “cute”. Haff even remarks that no one takes him seriously now that he’s old; he’s just sadly amusing. When Haff discovers Bubba Ho-tep, that’s when things begin to change. The rest home, which keeps him bored until he finally dies, becomes a place of adventure. Being old isn’t as miserable as it’s made out to be; in fact, part of it is purely psychological. Now that he has a goal, something to strive for instead of finally going to bed and never waking up, he feels alive again. There are other moments like this sprinkled through out Bubba Ho-tep and Coscarcelli uses them to create a movie that truly explores what becoming old truly means nowadays. You wouldn’t expect it from a horror comedy, but there’s some really deep and interesting stuff bubbling through out.

If there’s one thing that holds Bubba Ho-tep back, it’s the low budget nature of the project. A movie like this doesn’t attract multi-million dollar investors and the cast and crew do what they can, but not having the funds to really go balls to the wall with this hurts it in the end. The old man makeup on Campbell is passable but you can tell it’s makeup which can take you out of the movie from time to time. There are also no Elvis songs or Elvis movie clips, as that stuff is really expensive to license, so the scope of the movie is lessened and the Elvis backstory lacks the fleshing out that it deserved. It’s also readily apparent in the makeup and look of Bubba Ho-tep himself; again it’s passable but in a pure B-movie sense. It makes the movie look cheap, again when it didn’t deserve to be.

Bubba Ho-tep is a movie that is both entertaining and presents an interesting and compelling commentary on attitudes and problems of growing old. Campbell delivers the best performance of his career (I’m for reals, Evil Dead nerds), and in a just world it would have led to a John Travolta-style resurgence. The rest of the cast is great as well, all really working off each other well and committed to making the more ludicrous parts work no matter what. It’s just unfortunate Coscarelli and company couldn’t obtain a higher budget, as it takes away from the scope of the movie and prevents them from doing even more interesting things. Also the less said about the Bubba Ho-tep creature look, the better. When I originally saw Bubba Ho-tep, I was enamored at its craziness but now? I think it’s actually a lot more brilliant than people give it credit for.

Grade: B+

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