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December 20, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Bubba-Ho-Tep-Bruce-Campbell

The director of Bubba Ho-Tep, Don Coscarelli, is in this writer’s opinion one of the great American horror directors but seems to remain remarkably underrated. He may not be in the same league with the likes of Carpenter, Romero or Craven but given that he has given us the Phantasm series and this film he should not be seen as that far off. As well as that, while not quite as good as some of the movies mentioned above, he made the underrated gem that is John Dies at the End and outside of horror the cheesy but entertaining sword-and-sorcery cult classic Beastmaster

It is hard to pinpoint why Coscarelli remains so underappreciated I suspect it is due to the often confusing, dream-like nature of much of his output and the scrappy quality of his films in terms of effects and editing. Bubba Ho-Tep is no different in these regards as while more linear than say Phantasm there is still a something weird and dream-like to some of it and there is scrappiness to it, but that is undoubtedly part of the charm.

The movie started life as a short story by Joe R Landsdale before being picked up by Coscarelli after having eye caught by dustjacket which proclaimed Elvis battles Mummy! Lansdale was shocked that Coscarelli wanted to buy the rights as he assumed it would be the last of his stories that someone would want to make into a movie but made it into a film he did, and we can all be thankful for that.

As you have probably guessed by now, your writer here is a big fan of this movie. However, that does not mean I am blind to its flaws such as the convoluted plotting, and some of the humour leans a little too heavy on toilet and erection based gags that can at times be eye-roll worthy. Also not all the actors are not precisely blue-chip. It should be noted the ones that matter are though which brings us to the performance of Bruce Campbell.

There is no doubt a crucial part of Bubba Ho-Tep’s appeal is the performance given by Campbell as Sebastian Haff/Elvis. That plus the chemistry that he has with Ossie Davis who plays a black John F Kennedy and is his friend and ally in fighting the mummy.  Both of these elements greatly help to ground film as let’s face it Elvis and black JFK fighting a redneck mummy who is stealing the souls of retirement home residents via their anus is a very, very silly (albeit hilarious) concept. There is nothing within that concept that screams pathos or intelligence but all those are here and while some of that is in the script a lot of it comes out the central performances particularly Campbell who put in one of the finest and in some ways most nuanced performances of his career. As while the film leans on Campbell’s natural strength like his flair for slapstick and his quippy line delivery, there is a real gravitas and melancholy to his performance which again may seem surprising given the context.

If you have not seen the film, you may be thinking, but they are not really Elvis and JFK in the story right? Well even within the context of the story doubt is cast on both. According to Campbell’s Elvis he got tired of fame and swapped identities with an Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, and it was Sebastian Haff who died not him. The plot leads us to believe this is Elvis but the door is left open the character is delusional. Even more, doubt is cast on the JFK character as even Campbell’s Elvis believes him to be delusional which lead to a hilarious scene where Davis’s JFK explains “That's how clever they are. They dyed me this colour, all over. Can you think of a better way to hide the truth than that?” Frankly, it’s hard to argue with that!

The above is just one of the many quotable lines peppered throughout the movie many of which are nabbed by Davis even if Campbell gets his fair share of zingers too like “Even a big bitch cockroach like you should know... never, but never, fuck with the King.” Delivered after fighting off a scarab in his room.

In amongst all the monster silliness, you may wonder where this previously mentioned pathos is. Well as previously stated a lot of that comes through Campbell’s performance, but the script also tackles the vagaries of both aging and fame in a way that takes you by surprise and the movie ends up being by genuinely quite touching in its wacky way. These elements are both what makes the film so memorable and the reason why many will struggle with it as it is a monster movie, a farcical comedy and melancholy drama all at once. The gears shifts between these modes are not always seamless but, by and large, Coscarelli pulls it off.

Given Bubba Ho-Tep does have its foot in so many differing it was, of course, a nightmare in terms of marketing. Coscarelli had a smart solution for this however by getting only 32 prints made and “roadshowing” the film around various film festivals which led to it reaching cult status before it hit DVD given the strength of reviews and word-of-mouth. That cult status has only grown in the years since its release.

There have also long been rumours of a sequel first taunted in a joke post credit title that announced Elvis would return in Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. No serious plans were made then, but Coscarelli has tried to get a follow-up film of the ground but to no avail. Coscarelli also mooted the idea of a TV show in a 2018 interview with Syfy saying:

“Bubba Ho-Tep, as detailed in the book, we had a lot of setbacks with regard to a lack of involvement with Bruce Campbell on the thing. He gave such a memorable performance, it was very hard to do something without him involved. Again, I think that that story would make for a great sequel or series.”

So fans could yet see Elvis ride again, the only downside being it would not be Campbell playing him.

December 6, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)

Ju-On The Grudge 2002

Even now if you ask people to name a Japanese horror film, if they know any at all, the most likely answer you would get is either this film or Ringu. Both of which were the most popular films of the early 00s J-Horror craze. Not that necessarily makes this film one of the best as many would consider Ju-on: The Grudge to be weaker than some other such as Ringu or Pulse (Kairo) for example. While that maybe there are still many memorable and you can certainly see the films appeal.

The curious thing about Ju-on: The Grudge is that this is actually the third entry in a long-running franchise created by director Takashi Shimizu which is still going to this day and was also the first in the franchise to get a cinematic release. You may assume that you when need to see the first two entries (Ju-on: The Curse and Ju-on: The Curse 2) to view this one, but you do not necessarily. As all of the films work both as part of the franchise and as individual films. The connecting factor being the haunted house of the deceased Saeki family. According to the film's mythology, a curse was created after Takeo Saeki (Takashi Matsuyama) murdered his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji), son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) and the family cat in a jealous rage after finding out Kayako had a crush on another man. This curse follows anybody who enters the house and also turned Kayako into a vengeful spirit and the franchise's central antagonist.

Like all of the films in the Ju-on series Ju-on: The Grudge does not have a plot per se but is instead told in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Confusing matters further, these vignettes do not unfold in chronological order, so you always have to think where you are in the narrative timeline. In the first of these vignettes, we follow Rika (Megumi Okina) as she is sent to Saeki house as a carer for a senior woman. Rika, as it turns out, is the films nominal lead as she appears in more than one of the vignettes unlike most of the other characters.

Each of the vignettes run in roughly the same order with characters ending up in the cursed house for one reason or other, the curse then following with the back home or at work or whatever and then spreading to other characters they encounter before being bumped off by Kayako’s spirit. All of which makes the film sound very formulaic and a bit boring. The former is true as Shimizu has created a blueprint for these films and is very much sticking. The latter, however, is not there is plenty here to hold your attention as there is plenty of tension here to keep you hooked into the story and Shimizu maintains a profoundly creepy atmosphere throughout proceedings.

Arguably the scares have lost some of their initial power as audiences are more familiar with the chalk-faced, twitchy, clicky ghosts that populate many a J-Horror but there is still stuff to get under your skin on the evidence here. Notably in scenes such as the one where Kayako come spider-like out a room and stalks one of the characters down the stairs in the old Saeko home or the scene where you see another set of hands in the back of Rika’s head when she is showering. Also the horrendous croaking noise Kayako is just as unsettling now as when the film was released.

Not all the jumps work, and some of the fake-out (generally cat-based) scares are more funny than scary, but the horror set-ups along with the atmosphere are where the movie, and by extension, the franchise is at its strongest. As discussed there are plenty of weaknesses too as well as the ones already mentioned it would be fair to say there is little in the way of character development and the acting is of variable quality. The movie is also guilty of the Hollywood studio horror thing of laying on the musical cues thick to signpost this is going to be a scary bit, get ready to be scared now!

These were all flaws that critics at the time pounced on, and despite its rather stellar reputation as a horror fan favourite it received decidedly mixed reviews with a current Metacritic score of 48 and an RT score of 64%.

Inevitably for any popular non-English language horror film, there was a remake, just called The Grudge, made in 2004, which is actually the same year Ju-on: The Grudge got its official UK and US release. Unusually the Sarah Michelle Gellar starring remake did not relocate the action to somewhere in the States but is still set in Tokyo. The lack of location was not the only unusual thing about the remake as the director of the remake is none other than Takashi Shimizu. The other curious about the remake is that basically a facsimile of Ju-on: The Grudge with the main difference being the English speaking cast. So if you have seen The Grudge, you have essentially seen this movie.

Shimizu also went to direct a sequel to both this movie and the English language. Confusingly unlike the original and its remake Ju-on: The Grudge 2 and The Grudge 2 have separate storylines although they do follow the same non-linear chapter based. After four Ju-on movies and two American ones, The Grudge movies Shimizu left the franchise but it very much rolled on without him as there was another direct-to-DVD American sequel released in 2009 as well another five entries in the original Japanese series. The last of these entries being 2016’s Sadako vs. Kayako which sees the antagonists of both the Ring and Ju-on franchises face off in a movie that started life as internet joke and was met with a mixed to poor reaction upon release. If you thought that is the end of The Grudge franchise though think again as there is an English language reboot set to hit screens early next month. Proof, if proof were needed, you can never keep a horror franchise down for long.