Bubba Ho-Tep struggled to find a UK distributor initially, which is quite frankly disgraceful considering all the pap that’s released every month, but it is perhaps a little understandable though, at least if you take it on face value. Starring Bruce Campbell as a seventy year old Elvis, and Ossie Davis as a black man who thinks he’s J.F.K. and directed by Don Coscarelli, the man responsible for far too many fun but fairly throwaway horror films like Phantasm, on paper it looks like it could be somewhat silly and idiotic.
But instead of going down the obvious route of cheap scares and clichéd impressions, Coscarelli has fashioned a somewhat gentle and at times touching film, complete with the odd genuinely unnerving moment as well. Despite containing a four thousand year old Mummy who sucks the souls out of old people’s arseholes, this is really a relationship comedy drama, which sees two old men come to terms with ageing and struggle to deal with how things have turned out. The comedy is handled subtly, and manages to add to the sympathy you’ll feel for both central characters.
The real revelation in Bubba Ho-Tep is Bruce Campbell’s central performance as Elvis. I can’t deny being a big fan of Campbell, but from his role in The Evil Dead flicks to his smarmy quick talking reporter in The Hudsucker Proxy to his appearances in the Hercules tv series, he’s rarely been seen without his tongue firmly placed in his cheek. But here he’s managed a enticingly accurate performance of Elvis, avoiding caricature and playing The King as a flawed, complicated and frustrated old man. Concerned over a growth on his penis, the lack of a relationship with his daughter, and that soon death will come knocking, it’s a quite astounding performance, and one which I’d hoped at the time might have seen him cast in more mainstream films more often. Ossie Davis is almost as fine, managing to convince that he at the very least believes he’s JFK, though playing against a performance as strong as Campbell’s he was always going to come off second best.
Coscarelli bravely plays it slowly, building up a tension akin to that found in Barton Fink, or even Twin Peaks. And yep, I know I’m comparing a man generally seen as a decent but nothing that special horror director to The Coens and David Lynch, but he’s worthy of the acclaim even if he could be accused of borrowing those directors trademark motifs occasionally. It’s beautifully shot, claustrophobic but never too annoyingly so, and contains two of the best performances that sadly will never be recognised by the Academy. If you were to be picky, a couple of moments don’t work so well, such as a few scenes of light relief with two undertakers, and the cgi creepy crawlies at the beginning of the film don’t convince, but these are brief and easy to ignore.
Thankfully over the years this has picked up quite the fanbase, and for years there was talk of a sequel, though this sadly no longer is likely to happen as Ossie Davis died in 2005 and so much time has passed since the film’s release. A prequel comic did begin this year but unfortunately it’s pretty awful, and so it’s best to pretend it never happened. All of which is a shame as I’d love to have seen more of the characters, but as it is we’re left with a superb piece of cinema which really is quite unique.