Bubba Ho-Tep

by Don Coscarelli (2002, United States)

One of the things that sets the Toronto festival apart from other major film festivals is the “Midnight Madness” program.  Lest we get all caught up in how arty we’re being, the Toronto festival has midnight cult cinema and b-film screenings every night of the festival.  Needless to say, I spent a lot of time at these shows.  This was the first.

Here’s the set up.  Bruce Campbell—he of the large chin and Evil Dead fame—plays an aging Elvis Presley.  Seems the King tired of his fame at his peak and swapped places with an impersonator, with the plan being to eventually switch back.  The King gets a break; the impersonator gets to be adored.  It’s a good deal until the impersonator kicks off unexpectedly thereby leaving Elvis unable to switch places back.  He’s now a resident of an east Texas rest home where everybody thinks he’s insane because he keeps insisting that he really is the real Elvis Presley.  He also has an unpleasant growth on the end of his penis and hasn’t had an erection in years.

Elvis’ best friend in the home is an elderly black man, played by Ossie Davis, who thinks he’s JFK.  The two of them realize that there’s an evil force at work in the rest home feeding on the residents’ souls.  They deduce, correctly, that this must be some ancient Egyptian mummy and knowing that noone will ever believe a story like this from two crazy old men, they set off to destroy the mummy themselves.

Yes, it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds.  How could a film that features two senior citizens battling a decomposing Egyptian mummy while one hobbles around in a walker and the other in a wheelchair not be ridiculous? It’s absolutely hilarious.  Bubba Ho-Tep is everything a “B” film should be, and if the creators ever manage to get it into theaters (apparently there were four different distributors there for the screening), it will quickly establish itself as an absolute classic of the genre.  No question.

Thing is, though, Bubba Ho-Tep is more than just disposable fluff.  This is a far, far better film than any avowed “B” flick has the right to be.  First of all, Campbell delivers an incredible performance as Elvis.  Yes, he plays it for laughs, but he gives the character a depth that you wouldn’t at all expect in this type of film.  Campbell’s Elvis is tinged with a deep sadness as he reflects on the pointlessness of fame and mourns the broken relationship with his daughter, a relationship he knows can never be fixed because everyone believes that he is dead.

Second, director Don Coscarelli, best known for the Phantasm films and the original Beastmaster movie, has shot some beautiful film here.  The cinematography is stunning, and the editing job is simply perfect.  Coscarelli’s done the low budget film thing before, and he’s obviously learned a thing or two about what it takes to make a good film on a budget.  Lesson one being “don’t waste money on cheap effects when you can accomplish the mood you need through good lighting, believable characters, and deliberate pacing”.

In all, an excellent film, a sure classic in the “B” film genre and a great start to the festival.

Written by Chris Brown.