The film Bubba Ho-tep, based on a novella written by Joe R. Lansdale, has one of the craziest plots ever conceived.
The setting is the Shady Rest Convalesence Home in Mud Creek, Texas, where an elderly man who may or may not be Elvis Presley resides, getting treatment for what may or may not be a cancerous growth on his nether regions. While some say that the man in this nursing home bed is merely Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, who fell off a stage during a performance twenty years ago and came out of the coma caused by the resulting infection a bit confused about his identity, the man himself swears that he is the one and only Elvis.
You see, back in the 1970s, Elvis was getting tired of the hassles of fame and decided to switch places with the best impersonator out there, Sebastian Haff. They had a contract in place that would allow Elvis to return to his own life anytime he felt like it, but that contract was lost when his trailer home exploded in a barbecue accident. Haff died, and Elvis was trapped in his simple life.
Now Elvis spends his days in bed, time flying by, the last minutes of his life ticking down as he reminisces about the past and wonders about Priscilla and Lisa Marie.
But then a situation arises that causes Elvis to have to get out of bed, something that rejuvenates him and inspires him to take action.
Said situation? The arrival of a cowboy outfit wearing mummy who begins picking off the elderly inhabitants of Shady Rest one-by-one. The mummy is King Amen Ho-tep, who had been getting driven around the country on a tour from museum to museum after being unearthed from his tomb after 4000 years. When a robbery attempt ended with the tour bus skidding off a bridge into the actual Mud Creek, Ho-tep was unleashed on the town and saw the feeble residents of Shady Rest as a buffet ready to be devoured.
The staff doesn’t notice anything amiss, they’re used to losing patients and there’s no sign of foul play on the corpses. The mummy’s victims appear to have died of natural causes, because the way he kills them leaves no mark. He sucks people’s souls out through their anus.
It’s up to Elvis to end this ancient evil’s reign of terror, and to do so he has to enlist the aid of a fellow resident who he believes to be certifiably insane. A resident who also thinks he’s a famous figure of the 20th century. This guy says he is former President John F. Kennedy, not killed in the assassination, but instead forced out of the presidency and his life. Part of his brain was removed to be kept in a jar in D.C., replaced with a bag of sand, and to make sure no one would ever buy his story that he was JFK, his skin was dyed black.
Elvis may think JFK is nuts, but he’s the only friend he has and the only person who can help him. Eventually, Elvis puts on one of his old jumpsuits and, with JFK rolling at his side, wades into battle with Ho-tep to fight for the lives of his fellow nursing home residents.
So yes, this is all ridiculous, and in the hands of someone else it could have turned out to be a simple, crass, goof-fest of a movie. Something to watch once, maybe chuckle at, then be done with. But not that’s not the way writer/director Don Coscarelli (the mastermind behind the Phantasm franchise) brought it to the screen.
Absurd though it is, Bubba Ho-tep actually has a lot of heart to it and strong depth of emotion. It is a very funny movie, a lot of laughs are derived from Elvis’s and JFK’s identity issues and the problems with getting old and living in a nursing home, but the characters themselves are not jokes. They may be in a silly scenario, but they’re treated like real people with real thoughts, feelings, and regrets. There is a lot of weight to Elvis’s ruminations on the past and aging.
Under the old age makeup, big hair, mutton chops, and fancy sunglasses of Elvis is genre hero Bruce Campbell, giving the greatest performance of his career. He’ll always be known as Ash from the Evil Dead series and he rocked that role, but not only does Elvis allow him to drop some cheer-inducing one-liners, it also gives him some heartstring-tugging drama to work with.
The late Ossie Davis also does fantastic work as Elvis’s cohort Jack/JFK. There are several lines Davis expertly delivers that I quote regularly.
The film is really carried along on the shoulders of Campbell and Davis, but they were given a very solid supporting cast that includes Phantasm veterans Reggie Bannister and Heidi Marnhout, Daniel Roebuck and Daniel Schweiger as the funeral home workers who have to pick up the bodies of Shady Rest’s deceased, and Ella Joyce as Elvis’s nurse.
With Coscarelli at the helm, Campbell in the lead, and the plot description, this movie appealed to me in a big way as soon as I heard about it. I was so interested in it that when it finally reached an independent theatre 90 miles from my town, I made that trip to see it, along with a friend who I had introduced to the Evil Dead movies and the wonder of Bruce Campbell.
It was totally worth travelling for. Coscarelli and his cast and crew did so much more with this concept that I ever imagined could be done with it. Something I thought would be an amusing diversion turned out to be a movie that earned a permanent place in my head, and in my collection.
Bubba Ho-tep is a crazy movie, but it’s also kind of beautiful.