CULT CLASSIC: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Bubba Ho-Tep (USA, 2002)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Bob Ivy

Through presenting The Movie Hour for so long, I've come across many cult films which are really heavily flawed but which somehow still hold up, either by having something to say, or by being so strange that they become endearing. Into this little family which includes The Bed-Sitting Room and The Magic Christian, we can now add Bubba Ho-Tep, a strange shrunken oddity which somehow wins us over even when all its flaws are in plain sight.
All three films in this little club have intriguing premises which aren't executed in an entirely fulfilling way. The Bed-Sitting Room imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which the Circle Line is powered by a man on a bicycle, people turn into inanimate objects, the Queen's tea lady is in charge - and in which various characters wander aimlessly before the stories vaguely coalesce around a parody of the Second Coming, with Peter Cook as God. The Magic Christian is a mean-spirited satire of materialism conveyed through Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr pranking everyone in sight - which results in bizarre, headache-inducing non-sequiturs involving animal matter, the Gestapo, and Roman Polanski being seduced by Yul Brynner in drag.
The premise of Bubba Ho-Tep ticks all kinds of boxes for fans of conspiracy theories, B-movies and the silly end of science fiction. Bruce Campbell plays Elvis Presley, who rather than dying in 1977 traded places with an Elvis impersonator, injured his hip falling off stage, and is now living at the Shady Rest Retirement Home with a cancerous growth on his "pecker". He is accompanied by a black man (Ossie Davis) who claims to be JFK: he says he was patched up by the FBI, dyed black and had his brain replaced with a bag of sand, all so Lyndon B. Johnson could take office. Together they fight off an ancient Egyptian mummy called Bubba Ho-Tep (Bob Ivy) who is sucking old people's souls out of their backsides.
With that kind of premise, which is so bizarre it has to be awesome, your expectations for the film are naturally raised. If you're a horror fan, there are raised even further by the involvement of Don Coscarelli, whose 1979 film Phantasm remains deeply unnerving even after thirty years. Sadly, the film doesn't match those expectations, at least not to anything like the level of Coscarelli's previous films. It has a number of big technical flaws, some caused by budget limitations, but many of which are down to peculiar creative choices.
On the plus side, the film does use its absurd central conceit to bring to light a few ideas about show businesses and the mind-set of ageing rock stars. Coscarelli's affection for the central characters means that we come to understand the loneliness that someone as famous as Elvis would have experienced late in his career. Elvis has long internal monologues where he expresses regret for all the films he made, and how he should have fired his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, right after he first made it big. When you're arguably the most famous musician of all time, you would have to find a pretty elaborate way to disappear completely.
The film also takes time to explore how different people deal with death, whether through humour, tears or just plain not caring. There's a running gag involving two undertakers who collect the bodies of the old people at Shady Rest. While one is keen to voice platitudes about the passing of human life, his colleague tells him to shut up and get on with it. At one point they accidentally drop a corpse into a nearby bush and have to cover their actions, like a warped, darker version of a Pink Panther routine.
While a more expensive, awards-worthy film would deal with such scenes clumsily, Bubba Ho-Tep has the common decency to make fun of the characters as we grow to like them. There's a fair amount of toilet humour involved, with Elvis making jokes about his inability to get erections and President Kennedy sparing no details in his description of how the ancient mummy extracts old people's souls. But unlike a gross-out film, in which the gags are played very broadly, the humour in Bubba Ho-Tep is downplayed into offhand comments, like Elvis chatting to the police officer and remarking: "What the hell do I care? I got a growth on ma pecker.".
There have been many different attempts to portray Elvis on screen. Perhaps the most highly regarded depiction is Kurt Russell in Elvis, a 1979 TV movie helmed by John Carpenter which famously built Gone with the Wind in US TV ratings. But even Russell, in his finest performance outside of The Thing, cannot hold a candle to Bruce Campbell, who is simply astounding in the role. Not only does Campbell look like Elvis, but he replicates his mannerisms perfectly, taking everything that Elvis did in the years up to his death and imagining how they would have become exaggerated in old age. It's perhaps Campbell's finest performance outside of the Evil Dead series, and like Raimi's films he provides the charisma needed to prevent the whole thing from collapsing.
Outside of Campbell's performance, however, the film has quite a number of problems. Each of its problems could be overlooked or forgiven if there were taken on their own, but together they conspire to turn a potentially great, heartfelt film into a decent, heavily flawed one. Its strengths are still enough to guide us through 90 minutes, but as much as we love the film as it is there is a niggling feeling of potential squandered or opportunities wasted.
Part of this lies in Coscarelli, a director who has never played entirely by the rules. In summing up his review¸ Rob Gonsalves remarked that "after all these years... [he] still doesn't know how to make cookie-cutter genre films. Let's hope he never learns how." For all the originality that he brings, Coscarelli doesn't really understand how to pace a horror film, giving us a number of eerie or creepy shots but too many long, slow sections in between. The monster itself is a triumph of idea over execution, with Bubba Ho-Tep ending up as creaky and silly as anything that Roger Corman could come up with.
It might be harsh to criticise a B-movie for its absurd plot: that kind of comes with the territory. But having worked so hard to build up two characters that we genuinely care about, the plot holes that emerge after Bubba Ho-Tep's entrance undermine everything that has gone before. The actual backstory to the mummy is decently handled, but the explanation for his soul-sucking is rather clumsy. The final confrontation is funny at first, but after he comes back Terminator-style to face Elvis again, it feels like we've been cheated.
There are other production shortcomings too. The soundtrack by Brian Tyler, who scored Constantine and William Friedkin's Bug, feels a little phoned-in: he gives Coscarelli one very nice theme, which is then arranged in half a dozen ways and played at different speeds throughout the film. Adam Janeiro's cinematography is unhelpfully dark and grainy, and the camerawork is often distractingly basic. Finally, the use of hieroglyphic subtitles never quite gels, with the animation feeling clunky and the device being introduced far too late.
And yet, for all its undeniable flaws, Bubba Ho-Tep somehow wins you over. It's not a guilty pleasure film, which you enjoy in spite of yourself, nor is it a case of conditional disappointment, where you resign yourself to the knowledge that it could have been a whole lot worse. Instead, it's a film which works because of your emotional attachment to the characters, which overrides the fact that little else about it makes sense. You may not accept how Elvis kills Bubba Ho-Tep, but you'll still be welling up when he dies.
Bubba Ho-Tep is a heavily flawed gem which is more than deserving of cult status. It would be nothing without Bruce Campbell's fantastic central performance, and has any number of technical and structural problems that would way-lay any other film. And yet - somehow - it manages to win us over, whether by its weirdness or its unexpected heart. Whether as knowing trash or a highly unlikely tearjerker, it's well worth seeing. 

Rating: 3/5
Verdict: An endearing cult oddity