Hail to the King: Elvis in BUBBA HO-TEP

USA. 92min. 2002. Silver Sphere Corporation. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy, Larry Pennell. Music: Brian Tyler; Cinematography: Adam Janeiro; Produced by: Don Coscarelli & Jason Savage ; Based on a Story by: Joe Lansdale; Written by: Don Coscarelli; Directed by: Don Coscarelli.

Upon hearing a brief description of Bubba Ho-tep, one might assume that it was an intensely campy, irreverent B-movie that was pretty thin on characterization. The plot, can, after all, be summed up to some extent with the phrase, “Elvis versus a mummy.” It’s easy to imagine some caricatured version of the King of Rock n’ Roll taking on the monster. By now Elvis as an icon is as much a part of our collective subconscious—and as likely to be a Halloween costume—as any creature from the old Universal horror films. Elvis impersonators, Elvis on velvet, Elvis’ face repeated again and again like an Andy Warhol silkscreen; the idea of Elvis has become a vaguely tacky pop culture touchstone. Yet thankfully, Bubba Ho-tep is a more complex, and far more interesting, film than that phrase “Elvis versus a mummy” can convey. Writer-director Don Coscarelli, working from a short story by the idiosyncratic Joe R. Lansdale, succeeds in humanizing his Elvis and developing him far beyond a few rhinestones and a curled lip. As played by Bruce Campbell (himself a horror movie icon owing to his indispensable presence in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy), this Elvis becomes a hero to root for, not an object of ridicule.

The film operates on the premise that Elvis is still alive, if not exactly living it up, in an East Texas rest home. The singer is a lonely sixty-eight-year-old with a bad hip and a malignant growth on his prostate. He gets around with a walker and has a paunch. Sure he still has the same drawl, sideburns, and oversized glasses, but the glasses are evidently prescription, and this is not how we imagine Elvis. The explanation for why one of our most enduring American icons has come to live this humble, and mostly miserable, life is a cheekily convoluted one: he traded places with one his impersonators, Sebastian Haff. Haff later died, while the real Elvis took a spill off the stage when giving a performance (“I was Elvis impersonating Sebastian Haff impersonating me”) and subsequently landed in a rest home. Yet as outlandish as this explanation surely is, the reason Elvis gives for making the switch is a poignant one: “I wasn’t even me anymore, just this thing they made up.” Coscarelli’s film succeeds in getting us to look past the “thing they made up” and into the life of a real, human character. His sadness and genuine regret about a life too dominated by base appetite (for drugs, for food, for women) for too long comes through, and Elvis ceases to be just a caricature.

Bubba’s Elvis contemplates both the price of fame and the heartbreaks of growing old and being forgotten. “Why didn’t fame hold off old age and death?” he asks rhetorically before wondering if it would have made “any damn difference” had he not given up his fame. While there is some ambiguity in the film as to whether the man we meet is Elvis – it depends on whether or not you buy his story – it doesn’t really matter. The thought of having once been “King,” with staggering wealth and fame, doesn’t provide Elvis any comfort, if anything it only increases his unhappiness. And he ultimately longs for what any lonely man in a rest home would long for – the love of his daughter and his wife, the emotional ties that he took for granted instead of nurturing. Similarly, Elvis’ friend Jack (played with dignity and a wonderful light comic touch by the late Ossie Davis) believes that he is former U.S. president Jack Kennedy (he calmly explains that “they” dyed him black and replaced his brain with a little bag of sand), but the thought of having once been an important world leader brings him no great joy. Instead, Jack is filled with paranoia about people long since dead – Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Lyndon Johnson – and harbors his own regrets about not having been there for his children as they were growing up. And once again it doesn’t really matter whether we really believe the character’s outlandish story because we do believe his sense of loss.

The mummy of the film’s title (outrageously decked in Grande Old Opry-ready duds) is in a way a monstrous physical embodiment of the doubt and listlessness that plagues our Elvis. Bubba Ho-tep, we are told, sucks the souls of his victims from any orifice and than digests them until they’re nothing but “toilet water decoration.” He targets the rest home because the elderly are easy prey, and scarcely an eyebrow is raised when a denizen of the rest home passes away suddenly. Bubba’s soul-sucking is a supernatural twist on what’s already happening to Elvis. He abandoned his life at the top because he felt his soul being sucked away by the wages of wealth and fame, and now his sorry situation at the rest home is draining him of his life force and his self-worth.

Taking a cue from Kemosabe, the rest home resident who collapses with “guns blazing” when attempting to battle the mummy, Elvis finally decides not to give up without a fight. By taking on Bubba, Elvis, more than merely battling a mummy, reasserts his own value as a human being as well as the value of the other elderly people at his rest home. He makes a heroic journey out of despondency that is punctuated by the final battle with the mummy, and it resonates much more deeply than your typical creature feature showdown because of this. The decision to stand up and fight is a victory for the formerly bed-ridden Elvis in and of itself, regardless of what will happen next. Thus we have a film that’s a great deal more than camp at its core. Bubba Ho-tep first restores humanity to Elvis. Then it restores his dignity as well. When Elvis tells us, “I still have my soul. It’s still mine. All mine,” the moment is, actually, quite moving. Life affirming. Not bad for “Elvis versus a mummy.”

Victoria Large Written by: