Bubba Ho-Tep is about foul-mouthed ancient mummies, conspiracy theories, and the ultimate battle between good and evil. It’s also a surprisingly layered tale about growing old, regrets, and redemption. And it stars Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley. Is this the perfect B-movie? If not, it’s damn near close.
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Adapted from Joe Lansdale’s novella by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), who also directs, Bubba Ho-Tep is that rare cinematic combination of totally unique story and near-perfect execution. The set-up is entirely insane: an aging Elvis meets an aging John F. Kennedy—played by Ossie Davis, because the presumed-dead POTUS was “dyed black” after Dallas—in a sleepy Texas nursing home, and they team up to battle a cowboy hat-clad mummy who begins terrorizing the place. (Are these guys who they believe themselves to be, or are they just delusional? Doesn’t matter, really.) The premise is so goofy that it shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does.
A big reason is the cast. Campbell is the rare actor who can make anything he’s involved in feel like an instant cult classic. He may have been born to play Evil Dead’s Ash, but his take on the King—whom he plays mostly in old-fart mode, but also in flashbacks as a middle-aged hip-swiveler—is something special, balancing jokiness (those karate moves!) with real poignancy. Elvis does a lot of voice-over musing in this movie, and Campbell is somehow able to bring palpable emotion into that instantly recognizable Memphis drawl.
Davis, who was actually born the same year as JFK, has a perfect mix of paranoia, presidential gravitas, and a steadfast belief in his collection of books on ancient mysticism.
The tone of Bubba Ho-Tep is also crucial to the film’s success. This is a horror movie within a horror movie. The obvious monster is the mummy who creeps around the rest home with his scarab soldiers and swallows souls—and then, because this movie is also gleefully raunchy and dryly hilarious, shits them out and flushes them away into eternity.
But it’s also a film about the horrors of growing old and all that comes with it: being forgotten or neglected by family, being condescended to by the people who’re paid to care for you, and living with the knowledge that one’s body is rapidly deteriorating, both physically and mentally. Even without a crumbling personification of evil hanging around, the reminder of death is just naturally everywhere in a nursing home.
The unexpected joy in realizing there is something left to live for is what drives Elvis to get up and fight after spending the past few decades either sleeping, wondering what might’ve happened if he’d held onto his fame and fortune, or bemoaning his impotence. And it’s obviously perfect that his foe is a mummy—the dusty and decrepit Bubba Ho-Tep moves with only slightly more speed than the ailing Elvis, whose hobble strengthens as his confidence grows.
Bubba Ho-Tep delights in its B-movie elements, with a cleverness that infiltrates the production design—dig that Dealey Plaza diorama in JFK’s room, Campbell’s note-perfect jumpsuits, and the mummy’s “hieroglyphic” subtitles—but it never becomes overly pleased with itself. It’s also grounded in universal fears that go way beyond its creature-feature trappings.
But this is still first and foremost a movie that wants to entertain you... and show you things you’ve never seen before and will never see again. Old Elvis and Even Older JFK eat candy bars and fight a mean-ass mummy! With fisticuffs and magic! What’s not to love, baby?
We may not all face literal monsters in the night, but anyone over 27 can probably relate to being worried about what awaits us in old age. If for this reason alone, Bubba Ho-Tep is timeless.
io9 News Editor, here since 2016. Previously SF Bay Guardian newspaper (RIP), SFSU (MA, Cinema Studies), member of the SF Bay Area Film Critics Circle, big fan of horror, metal, and verrry small dogs.