Bubba Ho-tep (***½)

Posted on November 27th, 2003 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

The existence of this movie fills me with happiness and awe at the creative audacity of the human race. If you don’t know anything about this movie (although I’m not sure how you would find this review otherwise), and you have an open mind about movies, I urge you to stop reading and go see it before reading any further.

Go on, go.

When I ask if you have an open mind about movies, what I mean is can you set aside preconceptions about what movies should be and just experience what’s on the screen in the spirit in which it is given? Roger Ebert summed it up best in his review of this film, in which he said that to enjoy this film you have to not so much care what it is about, but you must care HOW it is about what it is about. Bubba Ho-tep is an amazing transference of an artistic vision to the screen, without care for the marketability of the story and without compromises to please the multiplex masses. In fact, this film doesn’t even have a proper distributor, so there’s almost zero advertising, it’s only playing in a few theaters, and will certainly not get the recognition (or box office) that it deserves.

So go on, go see it.

I’m warning you, I’m about to talk about the plot, and if you don’t already know the plot you shouldn’t read any further. In any case you should go see it. And if you’ve already seen it, go see it again, just so Hollywood can see that it has horrible taste in picking which movies deserve distribution and promotion (uh, Gigli? Texas Chainsaw Massacre? In the Cut?) and which don’t. Mind you, this isn’t Shakespeare, but it sure isn’t the dreck that Hollywood keeps excreting for the mindless herds, either. So thumb your nose at factory filmmaking, reward those involved with this unique near-classic, and be part of the grass-roots movement to show the so-called entertainment industry that you are not a mindless horde-member, but are instead a discriminating consumer who can appreciate a film like this.

Last chance, the next paragraph talks about the plot. Really, it does. Okay, you’ve been warned.

Bubba Ho-tep starts with an outrageous premise…well, three Outrageous Premises, actually. Outrageous Premise number one is that Elvis Presley is still alive and living in an East Texas nursing home. You see, at the height of his career he got fed up with all the glitz, glamour, fame, money, sex, and drugs and decided to switch places with an Elvis impersonator. Unfortunately for Elvis, the contract he had with the impersonator burned up (in a trailer park fire), Elvis (who was touring as an Elvis impersonator) fell off the stage, broke his hip, and ended up in a temporary coma, and the Elvis impersonator died. So now Elvis (the real Elvis) is living out the rest of his years in ill health, obscurity, loneliness, and regret.

Outrageous Premise number two is that another resident of the nursing home is none other than John F. Kennedy, or at least, he believes he is. You see, according to our elderly, obviously African-American JFK, the assassination attempt in Dallas failed, and Lyndon Johnson (et al) filled the hole in Kennedy’s head with a bag of sand, dyed him black, and put him in a nursing home, knowing that nobody would believe the ravings of an old black man that he was actually JFK.

Outrageous Premise number three is that many years ago a couple of thieves tried to steal the mummified corpse of a lesser Pharaoh (Tut’s brother, maybe) that was touring the US, but the bus they were driving ran off a bridge during a storm, dumping the sarcophagus into the river that just happens to run below the nursing home. Somehow the opening of the sarcophogus freed the mummy from the curse of death, and now he walks around at night looking to consume souls, which he needs as sustenance to remain undead (as opposed to dead). He has found an easy feeding ground at the nursing home, as nobody can put up much of a fight, and nobody is considered to have died an untimely death, since they’re all just there waiting to die in the first place. Elvis and JFK figure out what’s going on, and team up to try to stop the creature, who is dubbed Bubba Ho-tep (Bubba because he’s in the South, Ho-tep because it was an Egyptian royal family name).

At this point you’re either intrigued or you’re about to quit reading. If you’re about to quit reading, let me first say that once you accept the three Outrageous Premises, the movie plays it pretty much straight with the rest of the story. Elvis and JFK are walker and wheelchair-bound (respectively), and don’t suddenly gain heroic powers or manage to overcome the ravages of age. Bubba Ho-tep isn’t the fiercest undead creature ever to walk the earth, either, and he feeds on the elderly because they seem to be the only ones he can catch and overpower, and nobody listens to their outrageous claims.

If you’re still skeptical, I’ll also point out that if you go see this film you’ll see a performance by Bruce Campbell as Elvis that should, if there is any justice in the world, be nominated for an Academy Award. I have never in my life wondered what Elvis would look or sound like if he were still alive, but after seeing this film I’m sure it would very close to Bruce Campbell’s portrayal. There’s even a voice-over by the Elvis character, and while I usually find voice-overs to be annoying and pointless devices used by lazy directors to tell their story, in Bubba Ho-tep I found it to be a funny and poignant stream-of-consciousness from the man who would be King.

Also, this is not a slasher/horror movie, or even a horror/comedy. It sort of defies classification (which is why Hollywood won’t touch it with a ten foot pole…they can’t figure out what division it fits into), but if I were forced to describe this film in one sentence, it would be that it is a heartfelt commentary on the hell that is aging in America, coupled with incisive commentary about the ravages of fame and the human faults and foibles of man-made kings, wrapped up inside a story about two old geezers fighting off an undead mummy (who one of them thinks just might be Lyndon Johnson), and, if you accept the premise, is played straight and not as camp or satire, but is told with humor and intelligence. That’s a long sentence but there’s no shorter way to adequately describe this film.

Add to that the fact that JFK is portrayed (with appropriate gravitas) by the always-reliable Ossie Davis, and you have a movie made up of Grade B (and even C) movie parts, but which is put together with such skill and love that it overcomes its humble origins to become transcendentally great (sorta like Elvis). This film was made on a low budget (it probably could have been financed by sunglasses budget from the Matrix films), but it has enough heart and soul and humor that it ranks as one of the most enjoyable movie-going experiences I have had in years. So, relax, free your mind, shed your inhibitions, and go see this movie. And for being open-minded enough to do so (or to at least have read this entire review), I can only say thank you. Thank you very much.

P.S. I’m not kidding about Bruce Campbell’s performance as Elvis being Oscar-worthy. I’m sort of a fair-weather fan of his, having seen and loved his performances in Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. But I didn’t really care for Army of Darkness, I’ve never sought out any of his TV series, and I didn’t buy his book. I went into this film with expectations that I would see a Bruce Campbell film, and I didn’t. He is virtually unrecognizable, and not just because of the hair, makeup, muttonchops, and groovy shades. He becomes Elvis in this role.

There’s a scene in the film that I think should be shown to all Academy voters. In a flashback, we see Elvis (played by Bruce Campbell) meeting with the Elvis impersonator who will take his place (also played by Bruce Campbell). Even though they are both in costume and both look like Elvis (and like each other, since they’re the same actor), there is NO question as to which one is The King, as the “real” Elvis simply exudes greatness and power, while the impersonator just sort of looks like Elvis, but he sure doesn’t FEEL like Elvis.

I doubt that it will ever happen, but if any Academy voters read this, I urge you to seek out this quirky little gem of a movie and judge Bruce Campbell’s performance for yourself. By nominating him the Academy could instantly regain the credibility and respect that is slowly being frittered away by the ever-more-obvious fact that you seem content to suckle at the mainstream teat of the big studios while turning an ever-more-blind eye towards films without marketing budgets.

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