Often one of the biggest problems a film faces is having a hook that will grab people in based on premise alone. Not so with Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-tep. Elvis is alive and living in a retirement home. One of his roommates: John F. Kennedy who is also alive but now he’s black. Together they have to roam the halls and catch a soul-sucking mummy. Oh, yeah, Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead) is Elvis. I was game the moment I first heard of it. And while the premise is better on paper than it actually plays out, Bubba Ho-tep is original and quirky enough to still be worth watching.
Apparently Elvis never died. Instead he retired from show business and handed his legacy over to some schmuck impersonator á la “The Prince and the Pauper” and went on living a simpler life. Now he’s lounging about alone in a Texas senior’s complex watching those around him die while pondering his own mortality. He knows his life is coming to an end and wondering what it would be like if his wife and daughter knew he was still alive.
But just when depression and complete loneliness are setting in, the King meets a very much breathing JFK (Ossie Davis), who has been in hiding for more than 40 years as a part of a CIA cover-up. It seems that fateful day in Dallas where his brains were splattered all over Jackie’s pretty dress was a set up for a power grab by Lyndon Johnson. So they took out a part of his brain, dyed his skin and sent him off into a life of hiding.
Together Elvis and JFK become a geriatric Scooby Gang and set off to solve the mystery of an Egyptian mummy who’s been haunting the hallways of their decrepit senior’s home and sucking the souls out of other abandoned residents.
Bubba Ho-tep has all the makings of a midnight classic: odd yet intriguing premise, pop culture icons in a new light and Bruce Campbell. But Coscarelli goes beyond the traditional cult status, opting for something that is fun and deep. At least there’s times where it’s like that.
If Bubba Ho-tep suffers anywhere, it’s in the pacing department. It ranges anywhere from playful and witty to tedious and, dare I say, boring. To counter Campbell’s masterful Elvis, the mummy needed to be something special. That way both would have come out stronger. Instead it’s overshadowed by Campbell’s charisma and chin presence. The mummy spends much of the time lurking in shadows, which if done effectively would have built the suspense. But there really is none. Pardon the pun, but the mummy is lifeless, a relic from an upscale episode of the Power Rangers. And because of it, Bubba Ho-tep struggles to live up to its cult film pedigree.
So what? Maybe there was never the intent of making the film a perennial midnighter. There’s ample evidence that suggests Coscarelli and company were aiming for something bigger, something deeper. How many cult films ponder anything, let alone the meanings of existence? Most tend to focus on classic one-liners and creative violence. Bubba Ho-tep certainly has both, but it goes beyond that. The film is ultimately a meditation on living a life worth living, doing something meaningful, feeling proud about yourself and not caring if anyone else recognizes your accomplishments because it’s better to die proud and alone than just alone.
And Bruce Campbell is Elvis.
Bubba Ho-tep Gallery