I wanted to see Bubba Ho-Tep back when I first read about it because it sounded weird–Bruce Campbell as an old Elvis versus a mummy with Ossie Davis as JFK as his sidekick. The pairing of Davis and Campbell is weird enough–they seem at odds, style-wise, not to mention Davis is actually old while Campbell’s covered in make-up. The mummy aspect is a bit of a joke but also a bit not. It comes down to what’s so surprising about Bubba Ho-Tep. It’s not really a horror movie. It’s about old Elvis Presley in a rest home. For the first twenty minutes, Campbell isn’t even getting out of bed. He just lays there and we get a look at this feeble old man, plagued with regret.
Bubba Ho-Tep is all about Campbell’s performance. It’s great–and it’s a complete surprise, given I never think of Campbell as a particularly clever actor. His Elvis captures a basic apprehensiveness (everyone thinks he’s just an Elvis impersonator who’s confused), an obscene grandiosity (it’s Elvis) and a sincere sadness (Elvis wishing he could see his daughter). I’m not sure if Bubba Ho-Tep takes advantage of the viewer’s knowledge–the daughter stuff is sad because we know it’s Lisa Marie–but it’s exploitative. I can imagine if she saw this film, she’d be incredibly uncomfortable; the line between a fictional representation of a person who died some time ago (but didn’t) and that real person disappears from Campbell’s first second on screen. His performance is wonderful.
As the sidekick, who thinks he’s JFK (Elvis thinks he’s nuts), Ossie Davis is great, but he’s basically Ossie Davis playing a guy who thinks he’s JFK. It’s his scenes with Campbell though, where it really feels like two old men with nothing but regret and a longing to have been better men.
Don Coscarelli’s direction is restrained for the most part (there are some fast cuts to illustrate Elvis’s impaired perception) and his eye for the scenes is great. He creates this world where Campbell can be old Elvis (and there can be a mummy, but the mummy isn’t as important).
Other great things include Ella Joyce as Elvis’s nurse. She and Campbell’s scenes together are really nice, especially with the mood Coscarelli gives them.
Bubba Ho-Tep‘s probably the only way to tell a story about Elvis Presley alive today and have it be a successful, meaningful story. It’s good stuff.
Directed by Don Coscarelli; screenplay by Coscarelli, based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale; director of photography, Adam Janiero; edited by Donald Milne and Scott J. Gill; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel Vecchione; produced by Jason R. Savage and Coscarelli; released by American Cinematheque.
Starring Bruce Campbell (Elvis), Ossie Davis (Jack), Ella Joyce (The Nurse), Heidi Marnhout (Callie) and Bob Ivy (Bubba Ho-Tep).