Director Don Coscarelli does not have many films under belt and only about half a dozen distance Bubba Ho-Tep from his 1979 horror classic Phastasm. Made in 2002 on a super small budget of only about half a million dollars and meager distribution (only 32 prints were released around the country) the film has nonetheless gone on to gain a level of cult devotion to rival Coscarelli’s Phantasm perhaps. The hard to label film succeeds on a couple levels really, not the least being that it overcame its small budget. In fact the budget was so small that while the central character in the film is an aging and decrepit Elvis Presley (played craftily by Bruce Campbell in one of his best roles ever) not one Elvis song was used in the film since licensing rights to use even one song, or film clip, would have consumed the bulk of the films money. The film also succeeds because it successfully gets outside the horror genre and is able to explore other issues such as aging in a culture that treasures youth and the abandonment of the elderly. It also explores, via Elvis’ introspective narrations, the real meaning of success and the value of family and the regrets of a man in waning years who now knows it is too late to say and do all the things he really wanted to do.
But fear not that this is some lugubrious, tear jerker or feel good movie because there is horror in the form of a soul sucking cowboy mummy (who prefers the rectum as the source of soul removal) and comedy from the team of Campbell as The King and Ossie Davis who believes he is John F. Kennedy. Also appearing in a small role is Reggie Bannister from Phantasm and Bob Ivy as the mummy. The story takes place in a quiet little nursing home in East Texas where the once King of Rock and Roll himself lies bed ridden with a crippled hip and revolting sore on his “pecker”. We are mercifully spared the actual site of said mysterious growth. Elvis spends his days in bed reflecting over his glory years and what might have been had he led his life differently and watching his friends pass away. His is known by the patronizing nursing home staff as Sabastian Haff, an Elvis impersonator. Becoming jaded and burned out with success and false friends the true Elvis switches places with the real impersonator Haff and the King spends his days pretending to be Sabastian Haff the Elvis Impersonator. Haff has an appetite for junk food and drugs to rival the King’s and is he who actually dies in 1977 and the real Elvis is left stranded after the contract he drew up with Haff is burned in a trailer parl BBQ accident and he then falls off a stage while “taking care of business” and breaks his hip.
His life seems to be seeping from him in much the manner as the infection from his manhood when he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a mystery and adventure with fellow patient Jack (Davis) who is convinced he is actually JFK and has had his skin dyed black by the CIA who also replaced parts of his missing brain matter with a back of sand. While he is outspoken on his disdain for LBJ, who feels is part of the conspiracy, all info on his affair with Marilyn Monroe is “top secret”. They soon discover the nursing home is the feeding grounds for a lesser mummy (like the brother of Tutankhanmun) lost while on a tour of the States and who is dubbed Bubba Ho-Tep by Elvis. The Mummy feeds on the weak but plentiful souls of the dying residents. The deaths would never arouse suspicion and Jack and Elvis are simply two crazy old men no one would ever believe and soon are forced to take matters into their own hands.
The mummy never dominates the film and the deaths are not gory or exploitive. The focus seems to stay on Elvis’ new found purpose for living and becoming the type of hero he played in his films in real life. The heroics are rather shallow in the big scheme of things and no one will ever even know that Jack and Elvis saved the nursing home from an evil soul sucking mummy. They both die off in the end but find some sense of redemption during their last moments. As Elvis passes in the next world, lying in the mud of a river bank in East Texas somewhere, he sees the assuring words All is Well appear in Egyptian hieroglyphics in the stars. Elvis feels his life on stage and in films was a sham and travesty and yet here in the middle of no where he gets to die a real hero with another man’s name.
The twangy guitar laden soundtrack by Brian Tyler suits the film perfectly as Elvis monologues in his life weary and yet funny as hell reflections. And to reiterate what most people have said Campbell is great as Elvis. His performance is comical but not insulting or demeaning. At times he is genuinely touching as Elvis wonders about how he could have been a better husband and father. The films never gets maudlin or morose and yet it never inane either. Campbell simply never insults the memory of Elvis at any time, even when the King is examining his bump and finding the will power to use the bathroom instead of his bedpan. It is a rare type of a film really and it too bad Coscarelli did not delve into this type of thing more, or maybe just do more period. The story is based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale and for a while there were rumors of a follow up film but for now all that seems to be no go. And really there is no need. This film is fine just as it is and if a sequel or prequel were ever released I may just pass on it as it might spoil this curious and fun little film.