Cinophile: BUBBA HO-TEP

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Growing old is tough… unless you are Bruce Campbell. The legendary actor has always had an interesting career: from cult icon to scraping the bottoms of B-movie barrels to lately enjoying quite a stellar time on television. During that span Campbell has appeared in some truly dodgy productions and to call out his worst film is tricky. But his best? To many it’s the great Bubba Ho-Tep.

Even Campbell admitted as much in his self-effacing My Name is Bruce. This low-budget odd-ball drama/comedy/horror should have been much worse. Starring Campbell and made by Don Coscarelli, the mind behind the Phantasm and Beastmaster films, Bubba Ho-Tep sounded silly.

An elderly Elvis, who had traded his fame for freedom by swapping roles with an impersonator, finds himself in a depressing retirement home. He is surrounded by the dead and dying, plus his own health (especially a growth on his penis) is not that great.

People die at the retirement home, as one would expect. But soon Elvis and a man called Jack, who claims he’s actually John F. Kennedy, figure out it’s a roaming Egyptian mummy sucking the souls out of the frail.

The very idea of Bubba Ho-Tep must have sounded ridiculous, which is why it was a perfect fit for Campbell and Coscarelli. Campbell loves the role of Elvis, though he maintains his portrayal is only unique because nobody else has acted an old Elvis yet. But that’s Bruce’s modesty talking: he is perfect for the role. Coscarelli enjoys directing these strange, low-budget films and the outrageous story works perfectly with his style.

But Bubba Ho-Tep manages to stand above anything else either of them have created, in part thanks to its subtexts. Two stand out: the first is Elvis – is he the king or not? You want to believe he is, but Elvis finds himself surrounded by several people who are clearly a card short of a deck. JFK, for example, is black (played by the excellent Ossie Davis) and clearly not JFK. But yet you want to believe in their identities, whether they are true or not.

Another surprising theme is that of getting old. A handful of films have tackled the topic, but few manage to mix despondency and warmth as beautifully as Bubba Ho-Tep does. It truly is a film that makes you sad, happy, fuzzy and depressed, all in equal measure.

Combine this wit a strange horror ambience and it creates one of the most unique movies out there. Bubba Ho-Tep is somewhere between a b-movie horror, a dry comedy and a lament about growing old – pieces it somehow manages to fit together near perfectly. There are some big plot holes and silly exposition… but this is a Bruce Campbell movie. Just climb on-board and enjoy this mesmerizing ride.

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Bubba Ho-tep was made for slightly more than half a million dollars. This is one reason why Elvis’ music never appears – the movie couldn’t afford it. The stock footage from the Elvis film marathon promotion seen in the movie also used stock footage from other movies for the same reason.
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Bruce Campbell was offered the lead due to a prank. Director Don Coscarelli, who had fallen out of touch with Sam Raimi, received an invitation from Raimi for an event. the invitation turned out to be a prank, but the two got talking. When Coscarelly brought out the Bubba Ho-Tep project, Raimi suggested he contact Campbell.
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The film is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale – the name Elvis calls his lucky medicine bag, Mucho Mojo, is the title of another Lansdale book. The soundtrack was composed by Brian Tyler, who previously scored Six String Samurai.
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Only slightly more than 30 prints were created. The limited access created a lot of buzz for the film. Actor Bruce Campbell also promoted the movie heavily, including screenings of it as part of his book tour. A sequel has been mooted featuring Paul Giamatti and Ron Perlman.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: September 14, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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