Thursday, October 20, 2011
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Mummies don’t get a lot of play these days, at least outside of annoying garbage starring Brendan Fraser, that is. It’s easy to see why, considering mummies are five thousand year-old sacks of highly flammable, incredibly brittle dust and jerky that move at the lightning speed of a tortoise and grasp their prey with the unbreakable grip of two tongue depressors squeezing together. It would take an awfully pathetic individual to be rendered believable fodder for a mummy attack. So what better place to stage a mummy film than in an old folk’s home? And hey, this one’s got Elvis and JFK!
Though his ID may say “Sebastian Haff” (Bruce Campbell), the resident of the Shady Oaks rest home is really a geriatric Elvis Presley, not that anyone will believe him. His glory days behind him and forced to suffer the indignities of old age, Elvis spends his twilight years contemplating his lost youth and hanging out with Jack (Ossie Davis), a black man who believes he’s John F. Kennedy. But one final adventure may rest in store for Elvis, as a mummy in cowboy boots aptly dubbed Bubba Ho-Tep (Bob Ivy) has begun sucking the souls of the elderly residents while they sleep. Joining forces, Elvis and JFK seek to destroy the undead fiend before nap-time spells their certain doom.
Watching “Bubba Ho-Tep”, a funny thing occurred to me. It’s about a pair of awkward friends in a quiet suburban neighborhood who discover a monster preying on their neighbors. Of course, none of the authority figures around them will believe their wild stories so they have no recourse but to face the creature alone with what little resources and strength they have, given their age.
This could easily be a horror movie centered around children instead of old people, when you stop to think about it, and in a way that kind of made the film all the more amusing. Old age is so much like childhood except instead of the potential to earn freedom and privileges with the promise of a bright future ahead, it’s all about losing freedoms and privileges you once had with nothing but the promise of death to end your misery and humiliation.
Anyway, “Bubba Ho-Tep” is a horror-comedy from Don Coscarelli, the man who gave us the “Phantasm” series and, to much lesser applause, the “Beastmaster” series. One of Coscarelli’s greatest strengths as a director is an ability to set a mood and “Bubba Ho-Tep” is a great example of that talent, as it is a very moody film. The aura of hopelessness that permeates through all retirement homes is thick in this film, while the soft amber lighting bathes the movie in a very sleepy yet uneasy atmosphere. The humor is almost relentless in the film, due in large part to Elvis’s consistent inner monologue, but I’m grateful for it, as this would otherwise be an extremely bleak and dismal picture.
When I was in the 11th grade, I had an after school job working at the Greenspring Village retirement complex, as a busboy in their cafeteria. When I say “complex”, I’m not exaggerating. Greenspring Village consisted of four or five three-to-four story buildings, with basement levels, spread out over a large, gated and guarded plot of land, each connected by underground tunnels or above-ground bridges. The layout of each building was maze-like as the wildly varying sizes of the rooms (which were more like mini apartments than hospital cells) prohibited a standard grid of corridors. And to get from one building to another you had to navigate the passageways and floor levels to find the bridges and tunnels to get from A to B. I swear, they set the joint up that way just so the old people couldn’t find their way out. I worked there when the place had just opened, too, so most of the buildings were completely empty. Exploring the complex was a lot of fun.
Anyway, the point of that rambling anecdote was that “Bubba Ho-Tep” reminds me of Greenspring Village whenever I watch it. Coscarelli uses the art of movie magic and imparts a similar maze-like quality to the Shady Oaks retirement home, which again, adds toward the off-kilter atmosphere of the film.
But if “Bubba Ho-Tep” is anything, it’s really an actor’s movie, as it centers around two primary characters: Elvis and JFK. Bruce Campbell plays a very convincing over-the-hill Presley, though the film has made me realize what a cartoon character The King has become since his death. Hard to believe Elvis was ever even a real person. The nonstop inner monologue, though it takes the edge off of the despair, can get a bit tiresome after a fashion; especially Presley’s constant need to ask himself questions. Campbell receives some great make-up and really sells the exhausted, geriatric nature of the character; you never doubt that he’s an old man and even the slightest exertions are enough to sap his energy. The whole “last hoorah” angle of the film gives even the somber ending a hint of joy, as it shows that old people can have one final adventure before they punch their ticket.
Equally as impressive in the film is co-star Ossie Davis, a famous character actor, particularly on television, with an unmistakable voice and presence. His JFK is interesting, as he doesn’t try to mimic the voice or mannerisms of the actual ex-President, but instead carries himself with a sense of authority, dignity and an adventurous attitude. Sadly, Davis passed away only three years after this film was released. Though “Bubba Ho-Tep” certainly isn’t the most prestigious film to his credit, it’s probably the one I’ll remember him best for. And he certainly did a great job with the material.
There are some dodgy moments to “Bubba Ho-Tep”, however. The giant man-eating scarabs are ridiculous-looking; perhaps being throwbacks to the giant man-eating fly from Coscarelli’s “Phantasm”. Whatever the intention, they’re really awful-looking, and though the film is assuredly a comedy, they reek more of bad humor to me. On that note, many of the jokes in the film are pretty juvenile and, while I laughed at some and feel guilty over it (the hieroglyphics accompanying Ho-Tep’s insult, “eat the dog dick of Anubis, ass-wipe”, for instance), many are just too crass and lowbrow even for me.
Really, though, that’s just me digging for criticisms. “Bubba Ho-Tep” is a great low budget horror film with a strong (and small) cast of characters. The setting avoids placing the film in any specific year, giving it a timeless quality that’s sure to increase shelf life by a few additional decades. And even though I’m only twenty-six, the movie makes me dread my twilight years just a little less; or at least gives me hope that I might still be able to have some neutered excitement from my hospital bed.
Grade: A- (as in, “And hey, Reggie Bannister’s in this thing! I don’t think he’ll have a role this big again until he voiced ‘nameless security guard’ in an episode of Transformers: Prime last year”.)