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Brilliant on oh so many levels - TCB with the Big E
on 15 July 2004
How can you not love a movie called Bubba Ho-Tep featuring the King of Rock 'n' Roll taking on a cowboy mummy - especially when you have Bruce Campbell playing the role of Elvis? Add in a remarkable performance by Ossie Davis, one of the best soundtracks in recent years, and a huge number of extras on the DVD, and you've got a movie of must-see status. This film was actually a lot different from what I was expecting; I went in looking for comedy, and I got comedy - but I also got a really quite serious film that speaks to the audience on all sorts of meaningful levels. Bubba Ho-Tep gets better on multiple viewings, as well, and I suspect some folks who weren't that enthused with the film might change their minds if they were to watch it again.
It's sort of hard to classify this thing. Sure, there's a 4000-year-old, soul-sucking mummy and some nasty scarab beetles killing people, but this is not just a horror movie. It's a poignant look at the way old people are pushed aside and forgotten by the younger generations, a poignant look at one man's reflections back on his life, and it's also wickedly funny. Here's the story; bear with me on this. Elvis Presley is stuck in a nursing home in Mud Creek, Texas; back in the 1970s, he switched places with Sebastian Haff, one of the best Elvis impersonators, and now his new life is entering its final, loneliest phase. He is now a little old and feeble, he has a bad hip that forces him to use a walker, but he's mainly just feeling old and used up and worthless. When his roommate dies, he watches the guy's daughter (Heidi Marnhout - who is quite a looker, by the way) come and basically toss the old man's life and memories right in the trash. Then some old folks around him start dying mysterious deaths - deaths caused by a soul-sucking mummy in snakeskin boots and a cowboy hat. Hey, even Elvis has a hard time believing it until he sees it for himself. His only ally is President John F. Kennedy, played by Ossie Davis. Okay, I know you're saying "Isn't Ossie Davis black?" What happened, see, is that, after the shooting in Dallas, "they" dyed JFK black and filled his head with sand (his brain is still in Washington, running on battery power) - that's what Jack thinks, anyway. Well, these two old guys load up for bear and go out to kill themselves a mummy.
The plot may sound stupid, but this is in no way a stupid movie. Unfortunately, the things that make Bubba Ho-Tep such a great film are impossible to describe and quantify in words. It's an Elvis redemption story, as he gets up out of the bed and sets aside his age and, uh, problems, to become the hero he always wanted to be - he finds a reason to live again. Ossie Davis really makes the movie work; it takes a really great actor to play a black John F. Kennedy, and this movie may have failed utterly without his contribution to the project. Bruce Campbell is, of course, superb. One critic called his performance one for the ages; I'm not sure I would go that far, but he does an amazing job, one which only furthers his cult status among his growing number of fans.
My hate is definitely off to Don Coscarelli for his vision and determination to make this film. The studios wouldn't touch this thing with a ten-foot pole (which says a lot about what is wrong with the studios), the actors' agents weren't exactly keen on their guys taking the roles being offered, and there wasn't much money at all in terms of budget, but Coscarelli really makes the magic happen. The makeup job on Campbell was pretty good for the most part, and the man pretty much becomes the King. The soundtrack, as I've mentioned, is just incredible, thanks to composer Brian Tyler - even if you hate the movie, you may have to go out and buy the soundtrack. Bubba Ho-Tep did enjoy a limited distribution in theatres, earning film festival kudos in the process, but this independent film release is really one of those things that starts with word-of-mouth advertising and then just spreads like wildfire.
The DVD is incredible. Along with several featurettes on the making of the movie, theatrical and TV trailers, a music video of the theme song, deleted scenes, and a reading by Joe R. Lansdale from his original Bubba Ho-Tep short story on which the film was based, you also get two commentaries. The first one, featuring director Don Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell, is as informative as it is fun, but the second commentary is something special as it features "The King" himself - this is one of the funniest things I've ever heard in my life and definitely my favorite commentary of all time. This movie is worth buying for this alone, as The King's reactions to different aspects of the story and his frequent observations about the differences between this and his own films will have you rolling on the floor.
I wish I could communicate just how poignant this film really is. Despite of all the humor and farcical action going on, this movie addresses a lot of serious themes in a remarkable way. You'll laugh, you might even cry, and you will almost definitely go around doing Elvis impersonations of your own for at least a week. This is entertainment of the highest order, my friends.