Writer-director Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie on acid. It starts out a small character-based drama and ends up a horror flick with the special effects of a junior high play. It begins in the American Southwest and takes off for Mars. It doesn't work at all, but it's nonetheless fun enough to be worth seeing.
Adapted from the short story by Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-Tep is set at a rest home in Mud Creek, Texas, and tells the story of two aging men who become unlikely friends and eventually action heroes. Our narrator and protagonist is Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell), a one-time Elvis impersonator who fell off a stage 20 years ago and has been living on disability ever since. Sebastian admits to having been a drug abuser in his prime, and he suffers from hallucinations and feverish nightmares about cockroaches the size of softballs. Sebastian also maintains that he actually is Elvis and that at the height of his jump-suit-wearing stuffed-reptile days, he traded lives with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff, whose life he now can't get out of. According to our hero, the real Sebastian Haff was an even worse drug abuser than the real Elvis and had a bad heart that Elvis didn't know about. They had an arrangement whereby Elvis could trade back any time he wanted, but then Sebastian died from that coronary and Elvis was trapped.
It may be that we're supposed to believe this craziness, but I don't think so. Our narrator refers to a contract between Elvis and Sebastian that it's clear could not have been executed. Moreover, there's the nuttiness of how "Elvis" chooses to live after trading identities. He complains about the pressures of fame and the inability to live a normal life, then goes on to brag about how he earned his living: impersonating himself, a career that made him famous and brought him basically the same life as, well, himself. If this movie had decided to take a different (and superior) course, sorting out the truth of Elvis/Sebastian's story might have mattered. In Bubba Ho-Tep, it really doesn't.
Elvis/Sebastian's rest-home life is pretty bleak. He has to use a walker. He has a venereal infection that has left him impotent. And he's largely friendless. His roommate has just died, and another pal named Kemosabe (Larry Pennell), who dresses as the Lone Ranger, has surrendered completely to dementia. Then, just as Elvis is beginning to wonder about the meaning of it all, he makes the friendship of a man who thinks he's John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis). The primary problem with this claim is that the man is black. But he has a ready explanation: Lyndon Johnson faked the Kennedy assassination so LBJ could become president. And to keep Jack from reclaiming the White House, "they dyed me." (Nice pun that.)
This premise makes adequate sense to Elvis, and from that moment on the two new friends relate to each other as the men they claim to be. And indeed it may be that we're even supposed to believe that Jack is the former president. Again, I don't think so. There aren't any suspicious dark-suited men lurking around to keep Jack under control or stop him from telling his story. But as with Elvis, it really doesn't matter.
At this point, Bubba Ho-Tep is nicely poised to reflect on issues of identity and other important things. You are who you say you are. It doesn't matter who you were but only who you are. Loyalty and friendship are more important than fame and fortune. But this picture hasn't much interest in any of that. It's like one of its own rest-home characters who might put a suit and tie on every day: all dressed up with nowhere to go. And with nowhere to go, why not go into an entirely different story universe?
Seems that a mummy was stolen from a traveling exhibition and that the fleeing thieves drove their bus off a bridge nearby. Now it seems that the mummy is showing up every night to suck the souls out of residents at the rest home. Elvis and Jack aren't about to let that stand. So they devise a plan to ambush the mummy and burn him to ashes, which is the only way to stop him. It would be nice if we were to understand this whole concluding episode as one of Elvis' hallucinatory nightmares. But evidently we're supposed to take this at face value, one man in a wheel chair and another using a walker doing mortal combat with the undead.
In short, this film doesn't make a lick of sense. It does, however, offer two compelling performances. Davis smartly plays presumably paranoid Jack as perfectly calm and composed, while Campbell catches the rhythm and tone of Elvis' voice brilliantly. Meanwhile, the script delivers some screamingly funny lines. This flick doesn't realize its potential, but it's an entertaining failure.
- Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and JFK (Ossie Davis) join forces to battle a scary mummy in Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep.