Retro Review: Bubba Ho-Tep

What’s Going On?

In a dilapidated nursing home, we find an elderly Elvis Presley – poor, unhappy and very, very bitter. Understandably when meeting Elvis people tend to say that Elvis is dead – at which point Elvis will explain he switched places with the best Elvis impersonator in the business. It was the impersonator who died in 1977 leaving the real Elvis in the role of Sebastian Haff, the impersonator. Already an interesting premise but then things are taken up a notch – it turns out an ancient Egyptian mummy is killing the residents of the nursing home by eating their souls, meaning that the victims will not go to the afterlife. Elvis teams up with another resident, Jack, who incidentally believes themselves to be President John F Kennedy, to fight the mummy before their souls are destroyed.

In Front Of the Camera

Bubba Ho-Tep
Campbell as Elvis // Credit: Vitagraph Films

Cult legend Bruce Campbell stars as Elvis Presley and Sebastian Haff. Campbell is probably best known for playing Ash in the Evil Dead films and has appeared in everything from the X-Files, Fargo, and Xena: Warrior Princess. Jack is played by Ossie Davis – probably best known for playing Da Mayor in Do The Right Thing – who while very good this is entirely Campbell’s film. It’s worth pointing out that Jack is black and that JFK was white and this is addressed in the film.

The Title

Bubba Ho-Tep is an unusual title and the opening shot of the film is a definition of both the words Bubba and Ho-Tep. “Bubba” being someone from the south of America, a good ole boy and Ho-Tep being the name of a particular Egyptian dynasty, he is called Bubba because the mummy wears cowboy boots and a silly hat.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by Don Coscarelli who aside from this film is best known for directing Phantasm, and its many sequels, The Beastmaster and most recently John Dies At The End. The film is based on a novella by Joe R Lansdale, a writer known for works with odd premises – such as Elvis fighting a mummy.

Does It Work?

Bubba Ho-Tep
Elvis reading hieroglyph graffiti // Credit: Vitagraph Films

Bubba Ho-Tep is a brilliant film. There is no irony in this judgement, it’s not “so bad it’s good”, don’t just think because of its unusual premise it is anything other than a truly outstanding film. As a bizarre cult horror-comedy, it is very good but it goes far beyond that. As well as being about Elvis fighting a mummy it is about ageing, leading a good life, the perils of fame, lost love, fighting for life, being yourself. The best scene in the film and one of my favourite all-time scenes is the flashback scene where Elvis switches places with Sebastian Haff. What Elvis had, and what he gives up, is the dream of millions. He is rich, famous and successful beyond any comprehension of someone deciding to be a musician. One of the few people who can be identified, without any confusion, by their first name, a person who could legitimately be the most famous of the 20th Century. And he gives it up to play in small venues as an Elvis impersonator.

Bruce Campbell gives the performance of his career. An actor who has had a distinctly unusual career he rarely gets the opportunity to shine like this. The emotional journey of Elvis, and the audience, is something quite moving. He starts bitter, resentful of what he lost, what he could have had and over the course of the handful of days in which the film is set becomes a better person.

The film is somewhat absurd, purposefully so, and there is much said about whether Elvis and Jack are the people they think they are. As Elvis is the narrator we assume he is indeed Elvis. Jack’s story that instead of being assassinated he was switched out, a part of his brain removed and made to look to be a different race is bizarre so the audience, and Elvis, are skeptical. But, of course, Elvis’ story is equally ridiculous. Ultimately whoever these people “really” are is secondary to that they really believe and act in that way.

A lot of the film is concerned with ageing and being old. Elvis and Jack are far past their prime, Elvis using a zimmer frame and Jack sometimes a wheelchair, they are tired and sleepy, a lot of their strength gone. As we have Elvis’ inner monologue we learn that he has essentially decided he is in an irreversible state of decline, unable to do many everyday tasks without help. Their opinions are dismissed, they are talked down to, and no one believes them (admittedly it’s hard to believe a person who tells you they’re Elvis). Elvis is also full of regret, feeling he squandered his great talent and did not focus on the important things. In a sense, the mummy revitalises Elvis, his confidence and positivity return, and instead of seeing himself as frail and helpless takes action. When they learn about the mummy both Jack and Elvis decide the only thing they can do is to move to a different nursing home and therefore leaving the mummy to continue preying on the residents. After some introspection, Elvis comes to the conclusion that it is up to him and Jack to deal with this and his friend agrees. Perhaps it’s because they see themselves as these extraordinary figures from history that gives them the courage to fight but I’d say that whoever they really are, whatever their past really is, their extraordinariness lies in confronting this evil when they could easily run away.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Bubba Ho-Tep is a masterpiece, the most precious of the undiscovered gems of cinema.

Also Read: Rotten Tomatoes: Citizen Kane & Paddington 2 Fight For The Top Spot

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.