It can be a tricky balancing act, coming up with the perfect film in the genre known as the horror comedy; a picture that is hilariously funny while at the same time being truly scary. And while there is no shortage of films with a decidedly uneven ratio of horror::comedy — such as 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors, 1974’s Young Frankenstein and 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show — such films usually come off as pure comedies, only with a horror setting. But when the balance is just right, such as in The Ghost Breakers (1940), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, and still probably the finest exemplar of the horror comedy ever made) and Spider Baby (1964), the result can be a timeless and wonderful entertainment. To my great surprise, to this latter category must be added Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep, which has become a deserved cult item since its release in June 2002. I was not expecting overly much from this film, to tell the truth, as I happen to share the minority view that Coscarelli’s beloved horror film from 1979, Phantasm, is an overrated, muddled head-scratcher, and was in no way compelled to seek out its three sequels. But Bubba Ho-Tep, which was shot in only 30 days in Downey, CA, has redeemed the writer/director in my eyes, and I can say with little reservation that I absolutely love this hilarious, moving, imaginative, one-of-a-kind — and yes, genuinely scary — movie.
In the film, the viewer learns two startling facts. One, Elvis Presley did NOT die on 8/16/77, at age 42 at his Graceland home of heart failure and drug abuse, but rather, after having switched places with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff prior to that date, lived on! When we first encounter him, he is a senior citizen, residing at the Mud Creek Shady Convalescence Home in east Texas, recuperating from a broken hip and suffering with what might be penile cancer. And secondly, JFK was NOT assassinated in Dallas in 1963, but rather was kidnapped, had part of his injured brain removed and the empty space in his noggin filled with sand, and then had his skin dyed black. Thus, now an old black man, also at the Mud Creek facility, JFK is one understandably mixed-up ex-president! Fortunately, for the two down-on-their-luck historic figures, some genuine excitement enters their lives when a 4,000-year-old soul-sucking Egyptian mummy invades the Mud Creek grounds in search of easy prey. All shook up, indeed! But do the King of Rock and Roll and the King of Camelot, at their advanced ages, stand half a chance against this newly resurrected King of the Undead?
Yes, Bubba Ho-Tep surely is a sui generis creation, but the wacky conceit is completely successful, thanks to Coscarelli’s clever and poignant script (based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale) and the performances of Bruce Campbell (who most viewers will know as Ash from the Evil Dead trilogy) as Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK. The makeup job on Campbell is remarkable, and the actor at times sounds amazingly like the real deal; he easily steals the show. As the president, Davis brings to the role a degree of dignity and strength that makes us believe that his backstory just might be legit; perhaps this ISN’T just same crazy old geezer! The film features any number of lines that are laugh-out-loud funny, and I found myself grinning happily during its entire 92-minute length, when I wasn’t cackling aloud outright. How amusing it is when Elvis thinks to himself, of his pretty nurse (a memorable performance by Ella Joyce), that 30 years earlier, “I could’ve made with the curly-lip smile and had her eatin’ out of my as_hole”!
Then again, the film is in parts sad and touching, as when Presley ruminates on the lot of the senior citizen: “Everything you do is either worthless or sadly amusing,” and says to himself, while watching an Elvis movie marathon on TV, “Sh_tty pictures, man. Every single one.” Yes, the film, at its heart, does have a sweet, sensitive and contemplative soul, as we watch these two magnificent men in their twilight, and ponder the fate of the cast-off senior in this youth-loving society. (A & C Meet Franky might still be the best in class, but Bubba Ho-Tep is surely the more touching film.) Thus, how wonderful it is to see Elvis and Kennedy come alive, reclaim their dignity (the scene where Elvis calls his nurse a “patronizing b_tch” is priceless), and unite to defeat their common foe! And as to that foe, again, the film boasts a truly impressive makeup job on actor Bob Ivy, the result being one extremely intimidating monster mummy from antiquity. Thus, a horror comedy that gloriously succeeds on both fronts, and one with a melancholy soul, to boot.
Oh… I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderfully moody, twangy music that Brian Tyler has composed for the film; amazingly, the man plays every instrument on the soundtrack by himself. What a talent!
Anyway, at the end of this hugely entertaining film, the following words appear on the screen: Elvis returns in Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. And really, I cannot imagine any viewer who wouldn’t be thrilled to see a sequel to this priceless picture. Sadly, that sequel seems to have been permanently stalled, but we Bubba Ho-Tep lovers can only hope. Hey, if flying scarab beetles can turn into soul-sucking mummies in this world, then anything is possible…