Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) Review: Hail to the King, Baby
“You don’t fuck with the king.”
Synopsis: Elvis and JFK, both alive and in a nursing home, fight for the souls of their fellow residents as they battle an ancient Egyptian Mummy.
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Ludwig von Stroodle:
Hands down the best film ever made about Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and JFK (Ossie Davis) going head to head with a mummy. Bubba Ho-Tep is bizarre, crude, and completely ridiculous, yet oddly serious and sincerely heartfelt. One of my top ten favorite movies.
Elvis never died; he just broke his hip and landed himself in an old folks home while the world mourned the passing of the greatest Elvis impersonator. John Fitzgerald Kennedy is there too, skin dyed black by the CIA and partially lobotomized with a bag of sand in his noggin. An Egyptian mummy in cowboy boots preys on the elderly denizens of the retirement home, sucking their souls out their assholes.
I told you it was bizarre. Now onto the crude-ity: Elvis spends a considerable amount of time talking about a growth on his pecker, fondly reminisces about the last time he had an erection, and generally doles out way too much information, way too vividly. You could call it lowbrow toilet humor and you wouldn’t be wrong, but the context here sets it apart. At the start of the film, Elvis is nearly bedridden. His life has become nothing but a series of bodily functions, and his disgusting frankness comes from the fact that he’s so far beyond being embarrassed. That’s just his life: bedpans and a nurse rubbing cream on his junk.
Given all that, how can the movie possibly be serious? Everybody involved plays it straight; Campbell and Davis aren’t hamming it up, the atmosphere is solemn instead of campy, and the score sets the mood perfectly. The horror here doesn’t come from the mummy (which is good because pretty much everything about him is ridiculous). When this ancient Egyptian ne’er-do-well appears, he looks less like a monster and more like your weird, embarrassing uncle at a sweet sixteen, strutting around in his cowboy duds in front of rainbow strobe lights and a fog machine. The thing to fear in Bubba Ho-Tep is much more mundane: old age, abandonment, and everyday life in a place full of people just waiting to die. In fact, it’s the mummy that saves the King by bringing purpose back to his life and kicking off his friendship with Kennedy.
The bromance between Elvis and JFK is oddly heartwarming. They are immediately accepting of each other’s outlandish backstories – they’ve both gone years without a single soul believing they were who they claimed to be, or even treating them like human beings. So once Elvis swears he had nothing to do with that day in Dallas, they’re pals. Once Kennedy starts treating him like Elvis, that’s when he actually begins to act like the King.
Speaking of which, I was impressed with how well they portrayed the characters without overdoing it. Elvis only mutters the classic “Thank you, thank very much” once, and it’s a throwaway line that they don’t try to draw undue attention to. Most of the other iconic phrases are used similarly (and Campbell puts his own twist on them), which makes it feel less like somebody pretending to be Elvis and more like how Elvis might actually act if he was an elderly, senile, mummy-fighting pervert.
But the most impressive thing about the movie is how, even with absolutely everything about it being completely absurd, they still manage to hit the right emotional notes. Kemosabe (Larry Pennell) dies in his Lone Ranger pajamas, cap guns blazing, and it’s so damn sad. The slow walk towards the final showdown has all the same weight as any “real” movie where the characters are taking on a suicide mission; it doesn’t matter that one of them is in a bedazzled jacket and using a walker, while the other rolls bravely forward in his wheelchair.
It’s possible that I’m just weird and reading way too much into a movie about Elvis and JFK fighting a mummy, but you should probably watch it anyway.
Ludwig von Stroodle’s Rating: A
Guys, I really want to like Bubba Ho-Tep more than I do. It’s darkly, disgustingly clever, thoroughly creative, and stars Bruce Campbell (a Codex Mortis favorite). But it never ranks very high up on my list of movies to watch for two reasons:
1) The killer. I could sit and watch Bruce Campbell aka Sebastian aka Elvis shoot the shit with black JFK all day – I’m just not at all interested in the supernatural peril they face. The only aspect of the killer storyline that I like is that it motivates Bruce Campbell’s character to come back to reality. That’s it. While creative, I don’t find the mummy interesting, and most of the parts focusing on it and its abilities are too slow for me.
2) The effects. The mummy is also less-than-pleasing to me because he’s not particularly well done. Most of the computer-generated effects in Bubba Ho-Tep are poor quality, which is at odds with the general polish of the movie. It would be a better film if I could take the menace seriously… but the very first scene with a scarab ruins that. And unfortunately, I have a big beef with the practical effects as well. Much as I love seeing Bruce Campbell do just about anything, I’m too distracted by his old man makeup to really enjoy his performance fully. Considering how few good parts there are out there for older actors, it’s strange to me that the filmmakers chose to slather makeup on Bruce Campbell instead of actually allowing two older gents to take the lead.
Despite those two major drawbacks, there are still a lot of moments in Bubba Ho-Tep that I love. The movie is grossly honest most of the time, which Bruce Campbell pulls off with aplomb. The overly meta conversations between Elvis and black JFK are hilarious. And I also appreciate the clever setting – because a monster could easily pick off residents of a nursing home for a very long time before anyone noticed.
Since my feelings on Bubba Ho-Tep are so mixed, I can’t actually offer a recommendation either way. Take Ludwig’s glowing review with a grain of salt, think about how much of an effects snob you are, and go from there.
Calamity Brains’ Rating: B-
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