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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.