Genre fans love to talk about films and filmmakers. It happens all the time for me. Put several of us genre geeks together in a room and there will be a discussion about movies and directors within seconds. Give us a couple minutes and we’ll escalate into a full-blown argument over who the best filmmakers are and what pictures of theirs work or don’t work. However, once in a great while, there are those special moments where most all of us highly opinionated genre lovers come to an agreement. It’s rare, yes, but it does happen. One such topic is writer/director Don Coscarelli. That’s because whenever anyone brings up Coscarelli’s name, it is in connection with his visually nightmarish PHANTASM projects, which constitute about fifty percent of his artistic output. In short, if you talk about Don Coscarelli, you talk about his PHANTASM flicks – period. Ahem…not anymore, folks. You can still converse about Mike, Reggie and the Tall Man all you want, but if you’re professing to be a fan of Don Coscarelli, then the director’s magnificent BUBBA HO-TEP is now a major part of the conversation.
There is no reason for me to beat around the bush about this. I think BUBBA HO-TEP is one of the best movies that I have ever seen, bar none. It is an outstanding example of why and how films that aren’t bland cutouts from Hollywood’s cinematic assembly line must be made. When Coscarelli approached the studios with his script, which is based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, the stolid executives simply didn’t comprehend it. A feature starring two old men didn’t fit into their youth-obsessed marketing blueprints, which meant the director had to approach independent means to get his project financed. It’s a good thing too. A Hollywood studio would have skewered the heart and soul from the story and replaced it with cheap shot triteness and mindless CGI shenanigans. Fortunately for everyone, Coscarelli made this labor of love with his vision intact, resulting in a brilliantly unconventional piece that is difficult to categorize. It takes place in a retirement home that contains a group of wonderfully eccentric characters, but it also involves a vicious cowboy-garbed mummy that is sucking souls and killing off the patients one-by-one. So, is it horror? Is it drama? Or is it a comedy? It’s all of these things, but not for any formulaic reasons. The merging of the themes and genres are necessary elements in the reflective story of two aging icons, Elvis Aaron Presley and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who not unlike comic book super heroes rediscover their powers and take a redemptive last stand for the sake of humanity.
Bruce Campbell gives his best performance ever as an irascible, bed-ridden Elvis Presley. Once the King of Rock ‘n Roll, he is now reduced to being an old man with a bad hip and penile cancer. We find out through Campbell’s well delivered recollections and some effective flashbacks by Coscarelli that Presley had burned out around the time he was doing the big Vegas shows. He admits that not only had he lost his personal identity during that period, but he was no longer singing the music that he loved and he was tired of his entourage hanging around all the time. As a result, he switched identities with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff (also played by Campbell). Haff inherited the King’s life, money and fame only to squander it with drugs, alcohol and food. In fact, it was Haff and not Elvis who died many years ago. The real Elvis continued performing as an Elvis impersonator until he fell off a stage and badly broke his hip. Now he’s confined to a nursing home for the elderly. Campbell is stunningly engaging and convincing as he sermonizes about the disappointments of his life while brooding over his present uselessness. But Campbell carefully reveals an emotional second wind after he engages in a wild fight with a cockroach the size of a “peanut butter and banana” sandwich. Armed with only a bedpan, he defeats the bug and then soon joins forces with JFK to battle a murderous ancient mummy feasting on the frail residents of the home. Through Campbell’s thoughtful performance, we see Elvis once again develop spirit and courage, even though his crippled body and the need for a walker hamper some of his physical actions.
The same can be said about Ossie Davis and his masterful portrayal of a disillusioned Jack Kennedy. In this tale JFK is a conspiracy fan’s dream come true. According to this version of Kennedy, his pigmentation was surgically turned black by those who tried to murder him in an effort to discredit any attempt he might make at regaining his identity as the president. On top of that, Jack is left with a muddled mind from the shooting, occasionally causing him to be incapable of the mental clarity one would expect from a former president with Kennedy’s known intellect. Whether the codger is telling the truth or not is uncertain, but as the story progresses, the viewer comes to believe that this just might really be the great JFK. Davis is smooth, dignified and charismatic in the role. Every word that comes out of his mouth is delivered with an understated passion that makes him sympathetic yet strong, and wise but vulnerable. Despite the obvious weirdness of the story, both Davis and Campbell refuse to get hammy or parodic with their performances, instead opting to believe the bizarre situation, which in turn causes the audience to believe them. In one superbly dramatic but also affectionately humorous scene, we see Elvis, wearing a Vegas outfit and using his walker, and JFK, dressed in a presidential suit as he rides an electric wheelchair, moving down a hallway together to do battle with the mummy. This profoundly heartfelt visual by Coscarelli of two famous but timeworn men about to face down evil is amazing. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to find any other buddy movie that offers such a glorious example of tragic stature regained. Credit an inspired director and his two gifted lead actors for the accomplishment.
The packaging of this Collector’s Edition DVD by MGM Home Entertainment is first class all the way. The picture and sound quality of the DVD are excellent. Besides a beautifully designed menu, there is an impressive assortment of special extras. There is a photo gallery, deleted scenes, a TV spot and the theatrical trailer. I found author Joe R. Lansdale’s reading of some excerpts from his short story “Bubba Ho-Tep” to be interesting and I was especially fond of the in-depth making-of segment, which includes interviews with Coscarelli and some of the cast. You don’t want to miss the two audio commentaries. The first one by Coscarelli and Campbell is informative and fun, while the second commentary by “The King” (Bruce Campbell as Elvis) is at times downright hilarious. Also on hand is a delightful music video by talented composer Brian Tyler, who provides an exceptionally moving soundtrack throughout the film.
It’s easy to watch this movie strictly for entertainment value, as it should be. No film is worth anything if it isn’t entertaining. But still, one shouldn’t overlook how this cool genre picture captures so much on screen and is completely professionally crafted. From the multi-layered acting performances by its leads to the colorful supporting roles around them, the acting is flawless. The cinematography by Adam Janeiro and editing by Scott J. Gill and Donald Milne are seamlessly executed. Most of all there is screenwriter/director Coscarelli’s creative vision and keen understanding of the material. We don’t want to forget our cultural icons and Coscarelli knows this. It’s why he presents the aging Elvis and JFK as two strikingly heroic figures standing together against an evil force. Though it is filled with offbeat humorous moments, this film is not really a parody or farce but more of a tribute to both men and the way they face life and ultimately the possibility of death. Elvis and JFK fans will admire Coscarelli’s fictional but respectful look at their heroes, while genre film fans will no doubt love every single thing about the movie. BUBBA HO-TEP is that good