June 21, 2004

A victory over dead cinema

By: Shawn Macomber

Is there truly nothing new under the sun? Consider Bubba Ho-Tep, recently released on DVD. We’ve all heard the story before, with nominal variation: Elvis Presley, alive and well in an east Texas nursing home, joins forces with fellow resident and former president John F. Kennedy, Jr. to defeat a good ol’ boy redneck mummy who is eating the souls of the elderly and scribbling Egyptian hieroglyphic graffiti on the visitors’ bathroom walls with messages such as, “Cleopatra does the nasty.”

Come to think of it, maybe this movie is a little different.

Actually, Bubba Ho-Tep proves it is possible to take even the craziest project and get it off the ground, if you have a unique idea, some chutzpah, and the work ethic to make it happen.

Despite the campy horror plot, the heart of the film is a poignant commentary on the aging process, and the loss of ego and purpose that feeds the deterioration of the body. As the film opens, Elvis (Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame) is in a nursing home under the nom de plume Sebastian Halff. In a ploy to escape the pressures of fame, he traded places with Halff, a successful Elvis impersonator in the 1970s. Now he spends his days fruitlessly trying to convince people of his true identity. Full of regrets and sorrow, the ex-King of Rock ‘N’ Roll barely gets out of bed.

“Get old and you can’t even cuss someone out and have it bother them,” he laments, as his roommate’s young and beautiful daughter laughingly patronizes him about his identity. “Everything you do is either worthless or pathetic and amusing.”

The only person who believes him is JFK (Ossie Davis), who is obsessed with the assassination he survived. After he was shot, he tells Elvis, the hole in his head was filled with a bag of sand and his entire body was dyed to make him look black. (“Can you think of a better way to hide the truth?” he asks.) He has never revealed his true identity because he fears President Johnson okayed the first hit and is still out to get him.

“President Johnson’s dead, man,” Elvis tells him.

“Shit, that ain’t gonna stop him,” JFK retorts.

Davis brings some much-needed gravitas and believability to the proceedings. He is, after all, the man who delivered the eulogy for Malcolm X and, at 86, nearly an icon in his own right.

When the mummy Bubba Ho-Tep starts eating the souls of Elvis and JFK’s fellow residents, it is left to the two cultural icons to stop the slaughter. The home’s staff is too deep in the rut of dismissing the residents as crazy old fogies to take their fear or claims seriously. When one of Elvis and JFK’s best friends, a man who believes he is the Lone Ranger, dies battling the mummy, they don’t even bother trying to alert anyone. “Who would believe us?” Elvis asks. “A couple of nuts, Elvis Presley and Jack Kennedy, explaining that Kemosabe died gunning for a mummy in cowboy duds, some Bubba Ho-Tep.”

Expected to expire soon anyway, they are all easy prey for the mummy. “That’s what they brought us here for,” JFK says. “To get us out of the way until we die. … He’s the proverbial bird’s nest on the ground here.” Anyone who has ever visited a nursing home will recognize the accuracy of this sentiment. This is why parents and grandparents resist being sent to one of these homes tooth and nail. They are afraid of being powerless, marginalized, and, largely, alone.

Seen in that light, finding a mummy preying on his home turns out to be the best thing to happen to Elvis in many years. Obviously, the situation itself is terrible–nobody wants to fight a 4000-year-old soul sucker, after all. Nevertheless, these beaten men, who could barely drag themselves out of bed at the beginning of the film, are rejuvenated when life has a purpose again. They also begin to confront some of their failures, essentially their ordinariness when the world expected them to be extra-ordinary.

“In the movies I always played heroic types, but when the stage lights went out it was time for drugs, stupidity, and the coveting of women,” Elvis says. “Now it’s time to be a little of what I always fantasized about being: a hero.”

As you’ve probably guessed by now, it’s difficult to put Bubba Ho-Tep in a box–figuratively and literally. The film is an affecting drama (honestly) that is often funny, but has aspects of a horror film as well. A mummy is the obvious example, but also the punishment of the wicked by the supernatural. It will not surprise fans of the genre to hear that the woman who steals the glasses off an invalid in an iron lung will be smote. For all the outcry over these kinds of films, it is rare for anyone to get away with even questionable behavior, never mind the outright bad.

I won’t ruin the action-packed climax, except to say that it is probably the most exciting battle between a redneck mummy, an aging rock star in a walker, and a wheelchair-bound former president.

So how is it that two days after its release, I was buying the last copy at my local Best Buy from a perplexed salesperson baffled by the number of copies he’d seen flying off the shelves? Truth is, it was a grassroots success.

“The response from the Hollywood big shots was pretty damn typical,” director Don Coscarelli, mastermind behind the Phantasm series, explains in a DVD-exclusive interview. “They despised everything I thought was great about the story.”

I can almost hear the pop culture busybodies crying out in agreement: American corporations don’t appreciate original ideas! I only rent foreign films to avoid the red-white-and-blue homogeneity of the American film industry! If only we could be more like Europe!

The fact is, the movie did get made. It was a struggle, but it happened. Stars were drawn to the story and worked for miniscule salaries. Ditto for the crew. It was a labor of love, and when it was done, they didn’t all sit around and cry about not having a distributor. They got out on the festival circuit and sold the film aggressively themselves. Bruce Campbell, in particular, traveled to numerous screenings, giving talks beforehand on his career, enticing the Evil Dead/Army of Darkness freaks to theaters. They were right to believe in the film. Word of mouth spread the film from city to city, write-ups appeared in major newspapers across the country, and eventually a distributor took note and picked up the film. Judging by Best Buy’s inability to keep it on the shelves, it wasn’t such a bad business decision.

I will be the first to admit that Bubba Ho-Tep is the exception to the rule: a truly original piece of work in an ocean of recycled blather. But so long as there are people who love great stories, there will be people willing to tell them. (And Joe Lansdale, author of the short story that inspired the film, is definitely one of those people.) The best way to make sure those filmmakers and writers are able to go out on a limb is to reward them for doing so with our business.

In that respect, Bubba Ho-Tep is more than a victory of cinema, it is a victory for all of us who prefer our leisure time to be seasoned with a bit of the bizarre.

Shawn Macomber is a Staff Writer at The American Spectator. He also runs the website Return of the Primitive.

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