‘Bubb Ho-Tep’ (2002) Review

“Get old, you can’t even cuss someone and have it bother ’em. Everything you do is either worthless or sadly amusing.”

Bruce Campbell as Elvis. Ozzie Davis as JFK. Directed by Don Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale. It’s safe to say I ran, rather than walked, to get a DVD of this film when it came out. I’d been hearing about it on and off for at least a year at that point, and had pretty high expectations.

I remember being disappointed.

Watching it again I realized that because the characters are based on larger than life people I’d expected the film to be bigger. It’s a very small movie, and I mean that in a good way. Intimate. Just one location, a handful of characters and it all takes place over a few days – maybe a week. It’s also less about the final confrontation with a mummy – yeah, there’s a mummy – and more about the loss of dignity, meaning and control that a person faces when old age finally squats on their chest and takes a Cleveland steamer all over their life.

Sorry. There’s something about Joe R. Lansdale’s stuff that makes me want to write like that.

Anyway, once I let go of my expectations, I found myself loving the film. It’s a bizarre story, no question – a mummy stealing souls at a rest home with a geriatric Elvis and (maybe) JFK the only ones to face him down? How do you even sell that to a studio? Just getting the film made has to engender some respect. That Coscarelli (Phantasm, John Dies at the End) manages to squeeze some genuine character and pathos out of that setup is pretty damn miraculous.

The Medium
I’ve got the original release DVD (not the Scream Factory Blu-ray or the special edition with the miniature Elvis jacket). It’s completely serviceable – though I do kinda wish I had the jacket. It’s also available on Tubi and PlutoTV with ads as well as for subs on Hoopla. You can rent or buy it on Amazon, Vudu, Fandango and iTunes.

The Movie
Elvis never died. Seriously. He switched with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff back in the 1970’s, after getting tired of the fame, the drugs and the emptiness of life. Now he’s living in a retirement home in East Texas, contemplating age, illness, impotence and generally facing the end of life with apathy and a pecker with a growth on it.

A good chunk of the early part of Bubba Ho-Tep is spent with Elvis in despair. He can barely bother to pay attention to the goings on in his room. Bruce Campbell is excellent as the King in the winter of his life, able to pull off pathetic and charismatic at the same time. You could almost believe he was Elvis.

It’s not all twilight-years naval gazing, however. There’s something sinister going on in The Shady Rest Convalescent Home. They’ve got an almighty big bug infestation for one. And someone is leaving Egyptian hieroglyphic graffiti in the guest bathrooms (the Pharoah gobbles donkey goobers, fyi). Oh, and people keep dying. Yeah, it’s a ‘retirement’ home’ – but more than normal. Probably.

The only person who’s willing to talk to Elvis (or “Mr. Haff,” if you’re the nurse who’s stuck rubbing ointment on that growth I mentioned earlier) is his friend Jack, who’s the living embodiment of every JFK theory – and some you haven’t heard of. Like the ones where Lyndon Johnson kept a piece of JFK’s brain and then dyed Kennedy’s skin and dumped him on the street. Ozzie Davis is actually my favorite part of this movie, and I would have loved to see more of him as JFK.

Jack has a ton of books on the occult – including the Every Man and Woman’s Guide to the Soul – and he’s fairly sure there’s some kinda soul-sucker haunting Shady Rest. Quite how he makes the leap to it being a mummy that’s sucking souls out of people’s assholes… well, I’m not quite clear on that. Suffice it to say his suspicions are proven correct when Elvis sees the mummy – inexplicably dressed up as a cowboy – wandering the halls.

Given a purpose again Elvis (and Jack) rise to the occasion, planning to confront the mummy (“some kinda… Bubb Ho-tep”) with a walker, a motorized wheelchair and a hand sprayer filled with rubbing alcohol.

It’s both as stupid as it sounds and oh so much better than that. I love Ozzie Davis and Bruce Campbell together, they’re like an old comedy duo. Elvis’ struggle to find a reason to go on has some decent dramatic heft. There’s also some super-dodgy special effects (the scarab looks like a windup toy) and a middle act as saggy as ‘Fat Elvis.’ For me, though, Bubba Ho-Tep manages to entertain in spite of its shortcomings (and maybe a little bit because of them).

The Bottom Line
Bruce Campbell as Elvis. Ozzie Davis as JFK. Directed by Don Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale. Yeah, just go see it.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.