Don Coscarelli’s Masterpiece
I’m a big fan of Don Coscarelli. At this point, he’s probably best known for Phantasm and its many sequels. But in the long-term, it is likely that Bubba Ho-Tep will be the film that he’s remembered for. It’s a horror comedy, but unlike any one that you’ve ever seen. Like much of Coscarelli’s work, it defies categorization. Yes, it’s a horror comedy, but it’s also an art film. For a very brief discussion of this, see A Serious Consideration of Bubba Ho-Tep. But it’s also pure psychotronic fun.
Bubba Ho-Tep Plot
What’s most important in Bubba Ho-Tep is the characters. But before introducing them, let me sketch out the plot of the film, which would be a winner even without the wonderful characters.
Two men, Jack and Sebastian, live at the The Shady Rest Retirement Home in east Texas. It is not the kind of place anyone wants to end their lives. The extent of the social life at the place is when everyone gets together to eat. And the food is not the sort of thing you look forward to.
Like everyone else at the home, Jack and Sebastian are waiting around to die. But they find out that there is a mummy that is feeding off the people who live there. It kills them and then steals their remaining souls to keep itself alive.
The Mummy Comes to East Texas
The mummy came to find itself in east Texas because it was on a tour of the United States — I assume in the late 1940s. But some criminals stole the mummy, hoping to ransom it. So they were on the run with it in a bus. But a storm blew in, causing the bus to crash. In the process, the mummy was released from its sarcophagus, bringing it back to life. Ever since, it’s been hanging around the retirement home, feeding on the “little souls” of its elderly occupants.
Jack and Sebastian decide to take on the mummy. Figuring that fire is the enemy of evil, they put gas in garden sprayer and head out in the middle of the night. The mummy surprises Sebastian, and the two fight. But when Jack shows up on his electronic wheelchair, the mummy flees. Next, the mummy surprises Jack, knocking him out of his wheelchair (that continues to drive around randomly). As the two fight, Sebastian jumps on the wheelchair, distracting the mummy. Then he sets the mummy on fire.
Jack succumbs to his wounds (but keeps his soul). The mummy recovers and it and Sebastian fight. The mummy is clearly winning the fight, but Sebastian manages to empty the canister of all its gas. As the mummy stands drenched in gas, Sebastian lights a match and says, “Your soul-suckin’ days are over, amigo.” Then he throws the match, causing the mummy to be thoroughly burned and destroyed. Sebastian dies happily, knowing his soul will live on.
The characters are Jack, an old black man played by Ossie Davis. He is certain that he is John F Kennedy. He was dyed black and it just proves, “That’s how clever they are!” The most obvious reading of the film is that Jack is insane. But his argument makes a lot of sense and it is hard not to see him as the actual JFK. And in no other way does he seem insane.
Sebastian looks very much like Elvis Presley, and is played by Bruce Campbell. His official name is Sebastian Haff who was, a couple of decades before the film takes place, the best Elvis impersonator. The real Elvis was unhappy with his life and all his hangers on. So he decided to switch lives with Sebastian. So when “Elvis” died, it was actually the real Sebastian Haff. In the context of the film, this is supposed to be true. That is: it is the real Elvis Presley at The Shady Rest Retirement Home. But there really is no reason to think that this isn’t just his delusion. Clearly, the film wants you to think he is the real Elvis. (And really, aren’t we all? Except you know who.)
Bubba Ho-Tep is really “Elvis and JFK Fight the Mummy.” It is based on a short story by Joe R Lansdale. When I first heard the concept, I knew I had to see the film. But it’s actually much more serious than you would expect. The horror aspect of the film is secondary to the story of these two fascinating characters.
Much of the horror that is in the film is found in the way that Coscarelli renders Elvis’ perception of reality. There are many scenes where jump cuts and sped-up action takes on a very creepy feeling. This is added to by a great score by Brian Tyler. But this aspect of the horror disappears about a quarter of the way through the film, just as the more classical horror elements are introduced: the mummy and an enormous (but shockingly unfrightening) cockroach.
As the film progresses, Elvis and Jack only become more empowered. They are similar to characters in a Lovecraft story. But while we worry about those characters, we don’t the Bubba Ho-Tep characters, because they are men who have effectively been dead but are now brought back to life. It’s an irony that the mummy steals souls, but gives Elvis and Jack theirs back.
There’s one aspect of the film that puts off most people. Elvis has some kind of growth on his penis. He becomes convinced that it is cancer and that he’s dying. But just like horrific aspects of his life disappear as his anti-mummy campaign with Jack takes off, so too does any talk of Elvis’ penis. Clearly, the issue is death. Elvis and Jack face down death and defeat it — even though they both die (in the most superficial way) in the end.
But it’s too bad that this aspect puts off a lot of people. I normally tell them to just stick with the film for 30 minutes and they’ll be glad. But still, my win ratio on this film is really bad. I think I’ve only succeeded to get people who are Bruce Campbell fans to appreciate it. But it is hardly Coscarelli’s fault. This is a very big part of the Lansdale’s short story, which starts:
Ultimately, Bubba Ho-Tep is a very sweet film. And it’s one that improves with each viewing. I guess that it’s kind of a “guy film.” But women ought to appreciate Elvis as a bad boy. And what’s not to like about Ossie Davis — especially in this film, where he is such a nice man who loves “the woman who calls herself my niece”? How do you not love that? How do you not love this movie? The truth is, if you give it a chance, you can’t help but love it.
“Don’t make me use my stuff on you, baby!”
A Serious Consideration of Bubba Ho-Tep
Bubba Ho-Tep is a wonderfully fun film. I’ve always thought that it should have been called “Elvis vs the Mummy.” That is, after all, what it is. But it would have been bad in the sense that the film is a lot more serious than that title would indicate.
It’s really just the trimmings that make Bubba Ho-Tep a psychotronic film. At base, it is a serious discussion of the way that we treat the elderly in our society.
Just Who’s Crazy?
The common way to see the film is to assume that Jack (Ossie Davis) is insane and isn’t really JFK, but that we should believe Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell) about his backstory, and that he is, in fact, the real Elvis. But the most sensible assumption is that both men are delusional. Certainly Jack has his own backstory and it really isn’t any less believable than Sebastian’s.
But if we think about this on a deeper level, we see that both men are right. That’s not to say two of the most beloved men of the second half of the 20th century just happen to find themselves in a nursing home under the strangest of circumstances. But it is to say that every old person keeps the same sense of themselves that they had when they were young. Most of all, it is to say age doesn’t strip us of our sense of being people who deserve respect.
And respect is something in short supply at The Shady Rest Retirement Home. It isn’t just the staff. Sebastian’s roommate has a daughter who has never visited him in three years because, “I was busy.” The only indication that anyone cares for anyone there is Jack’s niece, or as he would put it, “The woman who calls herself my niece.”
Bubba Ho-Tep as Allegory
The mummy is simply Death that awaits them all. But he is a very special form of Death who not only takes your life but also your soul. This is such an important point in the film that when Kemosabe dies with “soul intact,” it is seen as a victory.
Another aspect of Bubba Ho-Tep as serious drama is the way that Sebastian’s health improves as he is drawn into Jack’s mystery of the mummy. Both he and Jack battle with death. They lose their lives, but gain meaning in the lives that they led.
The best horror films tend to be serious if you look at them in the right way. Night of the Living Dead (especially the remake) is about what it is to be human. Godzilla is explicitly about atomic weapons — it starts with a fictionalized Lucky Dragon 5 crew being blasted by a hydrogen bomb test, resulting in the first casualty of it (and Godzilla). But Bubba Ho-Tep is a much more practical affair because the treatment of the old is something we all have experience with.