“How could I have gone from the King of rock and roll to this? An old guy in a rest home in East Texas with a growth on his pecker.”
What defines a “cult movie”? According to Danny Peary in his comprehensive “Cult Movies” book series, a cult movie is a film that attracts a small but devoted group of obsessive followers or one that has remained popular over successive years amongst an often small group of fans. These films, by their very nature, do not necessarily reach a large portion of the movie-going audience because of their often quirky subject matter. Almost always cult films are unusual, unconventional, and sometimes controversial films that are usually watched over and over again by their admirers. Sometimes — but not always — these movies were initially forgotten and later rediscovered and hailed as masterpieces.
Bubba Ho-Tep meets all of these criteria, except that it was not “initially forgotten and later rediscovered.” Rather, it seems to have been conceived a cult film, born a cult film, and will likely die a cult film. Within the horror and sci-fi fan circles, this film was eagerly anticipated and was quite popular in its (unfortunately) limited theatrical release. Does this detract from its cult status? Certainly not. After its recent release on DVD, it will likely attract even more of a following and cement itself a much-deserved position in the cult movie lexicon.
Based on a short story by the great Joe Lansdale, Bubba Ho-Tep is the tale of an elderly Elvis Presley … the real Elvis, mind you, who didn’t die of a drug overdose but rather switched places with an Elvis impersonator after becoming disillusioned with his fame and fortune. It is also the story of John F. Kennedy, whom the FBI “dyed” black in order to “cover up the truth” — and what better way? Both are residents of an East Texas rest home and are succumbing to old age, senility, and the ravages of time. Of course, no one believes they are who they claim to be, but they soon find friendship in each other and the strength to fight to save what is left of their dignity.
It turns out that there is an ancient evil prowling the rest home: an Egyptian mummy preying on the waning life force of the elderly residents by sucking their souls from their assholes. The residents are too old to fight back; they’re not long for this world; and no one really cares one way or another, so what better place is there for a mummy to turn to for a soul-sucking buffet?
While this brief synopsis may leave some of you rolling your eyes in disgust, the movie itself is a wonderful treat to all those who embrace the eccentricity of the concept. Director Don Coscalleri (Phantasm) treats his protagonists with a great deal of respect, highlighting (but never ridiculing) their strengths and weakness, both mental and physical. Bruce Campbell, best known for his portrayal of Ash in the Evil Dead films, crafts what is perhaps the most believable incarnation of Elvis to ever grace the silver screen, even in light of the wacky circumstances of the film. He owns this film for every second he’s on screen, and just hearing Campbell as Elvis utter the line, “Never, never fuck with the King!” is worth the price of admission alone. And having the great character actor Ossie Davis in the role of JFK brings a touch of dignity to a role that could have easily been miscast. The small supporting cast also does a fine job, but the film really belongs to the two lead actors.
The film is difficult to put into any genre (except, of course, “cult”) which works to its benefit, keeping the viewer off-kilter in their expectations of what might be around the next corner. Viewers expecting a full-on horror film or a horror comedy will likely be disappointed. While elements of both horror and comedy exist in Bubba Ho-Tep, they take their appropriate places and the film never devolves into a caricature of itself. The bulk of the film is devoted to the relationship between Elvis and JFK, and the end result is a moving and poignant portrayal of two once great men who now have only each other and their dignity left to live (and fight) for. Composer Brian Tyler’s sparse, tender score is wonderful, bringing a tone of seriousness and loss to the film in all the appropriate places.
Simultaneously funny and touching, with great performances by all the actors involved, Bubba Ho-Tep is a true original with heart that begs to be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in film. It’s amazing to see how an original idea coupled with a few hundred thousand dollars and a team of dedicated filmmakers can result in a movie that is so far ahead of 99 percent of the crap films that the studios bombard us with each week. So rent it, buy the DVD, or head to the theater right away to see this quirky gem. Now.
Bubba Ho-Tep / Scott Stephens
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()