Cult Movies: Bubba Ho-Tep is weird, wonderful and rooted firmly in the spirit of The King
AS AWARDS season rumbles on in Hollywood and wide-eyed industry types continue to drool lovingly over Baz Luhrmann's lavish Elvis – a victory of style over substance if you ask me, like everything Luhrmann touches – how about considering another, much less bombastic film offering that taps into the magic of the man they called the Memphis Flash?
Where the bold Baz goes big on everything to do with Elvis and his cultural footprint, director Don Coscarelli's 2002 film Bubba Ho-Tep heads firmly in the opposite direction, offering up a weird and wonderful low budget fable about the King in his twilight years.
This could be described as an Elvis movie in the loosest sense only – in fact, it's not really about Presley at all, if truth be told. But it's all the better for that, in my book.
Set in a dusty old Texas nursing home, it stars Bruce Campbell as an elderly resident who believes he is Elvis. His daily routine of pondering his decline and considering a dodgy growth in his nether regions is thrown asunder when he realises an age old Egyptian mummy is lurking in the corridors, sucking the lifeforce from elderly residents and generally behaving in a decidedly antisocial way.
What does an ageing King of rock and roll do about this development? Well, he teams up with a fellow old timer played by Ossie Davis, who believes he is John F Kennedy – seemingly the sniper's bullet in Dallas has not only left JFK wheelchair-bound, but also changed his skin colour from white to black – and together the two creaking cultural behemoths fight off the evil supernatural monster to save their fellow care home citizens. As you would.
As its basic premise suggests, Bubba Ho-Tep is funny, knowing and hugely entertaining. Some may snort dismissively at the sheer silliness of it all, of course, but a movie buff uninterested in a film about a decrepit Elvis fighting off an ancient mummy in an old people's home with only a "dyed black" ex-President to help him is no friend of mine, frankly.
Behind the surface surrealism this is also an oddly moving study about growing old in a world obsessed only with youth, and there's even an air of spookiness that only adds to the magic. The whole thing rattles along at an impressive pace and the performances from Davis and Campbell in particular are brilliant.
Of course, both Campbell and Coscarelli have previous form in the world of cult classics, with Campbell fronting the Evil Dead films and Coscarelli helming the Phantasm franchise, and there's a real sense that all concerned here are well aware of how knowing and clever they're being with the story and the cultural references they're laying out. That's fine, though, when everything is played with the kind of verve and style as it is here.
The minuscule budget means the effects are shaky at times, but Bubba Ho-Tep is a triumph all the same. Weird, wonderful and rooted firmly in the spirit of The King, I'd take this over the camp excess of Luhrmann's Elvis any day.