By Wrappin’ Jack Ruby
Alongside Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, Bubba Ho-Tep was one of my favorite movies to see last year with a crowd. It was a packed house at San Diego Comic Con, everybody was pumped and ready to see “Bruuuuuuuuce” and Don Coscarelli was the one who let us sneak into the theater. I’d been a fan of Joe Lansdale for quite some time and thought his Nacogdoches-spun tales of Texas crime and western horror were quite cool, actually. Seeing his work get together with not only Bruce Campbell, but also Phantasm man Coscarelli was a dream come true. The fact that the movie didn’t, thereby, turn into a complete disappointment was a big damn plus, too. If you like any of these three guys, go see Bubba Ho-Tep and you won’t be disappointed.
Staying rigidly faithful to the short story (amazingly so), Bubba Ho-Tep has one of the most original concepts you can imagine (a point echoed not too long ago in a box description written by Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times). You see, Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) didn’t die, but got sick of “being Elvis.” So, he switched places with an impersonator late in his career and that’s who died on the toilet in Graceland. The real Elvis wandered around for years until finally ending up in a rest home in Texas, looking back on his life, wondering if he made the right decision (and missing Lisa Marie), and slowly dying.
Also at the rest home is John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis). Well, no, it’s not JFK really, but a senile old man who thinks the government faked his death and “turned him black” so that no one would believe him. The amazing conceit of both the short story and the movie is that since you’re seeing this through the eyes of Elvis, you think that, of course JFK is crazy. You accept that Elvis is Elvis and he really did switch places with an impersonator. The closer reading tells us that, well, like JFK, maybe he created his own past-memory just like his presidential pal and is just as crazy and senile.
Like Herb Gardner’s seminal play I’m Not Rappaport, which Davis starred in the film of, an interesting movie could be made out of these two guys hooking up on their own just unraveling each other’s past Big Fish-style. But no, Lansdale just wants to use these characters to his own end – setting them against an old-age Egyptian mummy who rises from a nearby bog to kill off the elderly patients at the rest home, one by one.
Yes, now THAT is a plot. What makes this film and the story so good (Goddamn, Coscarelli, you really knocked this one out of the fucking park, fella) is that you can do different things – you can make this a straight comedy about a wacky mummy, you can do the horror version of it full of mummy-scares OR, you can do the movie about how society doesn’t really care if the elderly die today because of a mummy of three weeks from now due to kidney failure or something, so it’s up to these wizened old bastards to fight this threat on their own. Coscarelli deftly weaves all three things together, balances the thing on the head of a pin, and keeps it up for the whole movie. I shed tears at the end, for God’s sake.
First off, Ossie Davis as JFK is just brilliant. You needed an actor with real chops to take on that part and they actually got him. Davis lends a real credibility to the old man and makes him completely dimensional. Yes, he may be crazy, but he’s also just a sweet old man who doesn’t want to die quite yet. He has regrets, but has pretty much lost his mind many moons ago. But, you don’t feel sorry for him.
Matching him (and making for pretty solid chemistry) is Bruce Campbell. Yes, it’s a fandom-wide joke at this point that Bruce Campbell is God. We’d suggest him for every role from Superman to a Peter Greenaway production of Woyzeck and, well, mean it. Is this really just because of Evil Dead, Brisco and Xena? Well, who knows – he’s been good in pretty much everything he’s done and even turned out to be a great writer. He always comes out for the fans, has probably had more photos taken with him and some Big Tattooed Guy than anyone else on the planet (well, maybe Robert Englund or Gene Simmons) and is just a good fellow.
And, every so often, we’re reminded that the guy CAN ACT.
In Bubba Ho-Tep, the cult persona that is “The Bruce” fades away into, well, Elvis. He goes to town and gives a great, subtle performance, likely the kind of thing that makes Lucky McKee not stunt-cast him in The Woods, but give him an actual part. Bruce Campbell can act, he’s not just a one-note cult actor and it’s too bad Hollywood just doesn’t realize that.
And guess what? Don Coscarelli can direct. I enjoyed Bubba Ho-Tep and I know I’m not alone. Unlike movies that claim to be “valentine’s to the fans,” Bubba Ho-Tep is not because it stars Bruce Campbell or is by a great horror director or comes from a fan-favorite novelist, but is because it’s a solid horror movie that challenges the audience to realize it’s firing on all cylinders, has a lot going on in its head and is a well-made movie.
The film opened last weekend in Seattle and kicked ass. This weekend, it opens in New York City and next weekend, in Los Angeles. From there, it’ll continue its expansion across the country depending on how it does at the box office. This is like one of the few times where the fans coming out and buying a ticket can make a difference (no, I’m not talking Gerry Adams “an armalite and a ballot box” difference, but hey). Unlike most such occasions, it’s actually a good movie that could stand on its own two feet.
8.0 out of 10
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