Bubba Ho-Tep is so absurd that I’ve never been able to describe how good it is to anyone without having them get hung up on the premise. A mummy attacks a retirement home, and the only people who can stop him are an elderly Elvis Presley and an old black man who may or may not be John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis). The fact that Elvis is played by B-movie God Bruce Campbell and the film is directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm fame makes it even harder. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is a good enough orator to explain how the film plays that part fairly straight, and how it’s often a somber reflection on aging, friendship, and looking for solace wherever one can find it.
It’s also one of the rare horror films that deals directly with the elderly.
One of the things Bubba Ho-Tep does better than any Elvis biopic or miniseries I’ve ever seen is humanize him. I don’t need to tell you how iconic Elvis is, or how he’s still one with his mythology to this day. The problem is that that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in that mythology, and most depictions of The King show him as somewhat glamorized, even in his most desperate moments. Bruce Campbell’s (unreasonably good portrayal of) Elvis gets none of that. Over a period of three minutes, the film depicts Elvis post-divorce as a broken man. Priscilla—his only true love—has left him, he is acutely aware that he has become a made-up character rather than his own man, his friends were “sucking [him] dry,” and fame had just gotten old. He wanted to quit, and got his wish by switching places with an Elvis impersonator. Even in his old age, Elvis isn’t portrayed as a goofball, but a somber man who lost everything and no one believes it. His inner monologues use few-to-no catchphrases, opting instead for solemn reflections on life from a man who wants to know if everything was worth it.
Take this clip from the film, for example. Campbell’s Elvis carries himself with the unmistakable power and poise of The King, but there’s clearly a wounded figure behind the cape:
Elvis’s foe in Bubba Ho-Tep is the titular mummy—an ancient Egyptian evil with a bit of a southern twist. It survives by sucking out the souls of the living. It looks, acts, and is treated like a genuine monster: it is slow, deliberate, and intimidating, only attacking the weakest it can, angry after years of being treated as a sideshow. The scene of him walking down the hallway, making eye contact with Elvis to show his soul, and walking down the hallway is unnerving. Later in the film, he hovers over one of the main characters and the camera gives us a point of view shot of the mummy opening his jaw and revealing the abyss within.
Having a monster be demonstrably slow yet having him catch up to the protagonists anyway is a known, tired trope. Bubba Ho-Tep circumvents that by putting the monster in the one place where its speed and physical weakness aren’t a detriment—a retirement home. Almost everyone at Shady Rest is old and frail, many of whom need a walker or wheelchair to get around, prime candidates for the mummy to harvest.
Bubba Ho-Tep is, as far as I’m aware, the only horror film set in a retirement home. From an economic standpoint, it makes sense why so many horror films take place in amusement parks, summer camps, and schools; young people are by and large the market for horror films, and having a place they relate to makes it easier to market. Even more than demographic preference, there are some darker undertones here. Perhaps it’s because we see old people dying as inherently less tragic. Perhaps it’s because retirement homes have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind aspect to them, a place we see as just full elderly people put aside, away from us.
The film addresses the latter point directly, where the daughter of Elvis’s deceased roommate visits to pick up his things and admits she only visited before to check him in. While it doesn’t exactly clock in as horror, the dehumanization of the retirement home residents acts as eerie background radiation. These men and women had stories and continue to have feelings, but nobody cares. They’re treated as obsolete.
There’s a lot to love about Bubba Ho-Tep. It offers a chance to see what Elvis might have been like if he had the chance to grow old and reflect on his life. (“Shitty pictures, man,” says Campbell’s Elvis upon finding a 24 Hour Elvis Movie Marathon on TV. “Every single one.”) Brian Taylor’s score is majestic, playing off of western motifs, and is a masterclass in how key changes can affect mood. The film contains perhaps the only poignant, and certainly most inspiring, boner joke ever made.
I first watched Bubba Ho-Tep in college with some friends after tracking down the DVD at the now defunct Video Americain in Baltimore, one of the last remaining video rental stores that specialized in any foreign or esoteric movie you could ever hope to find on DVD. I laughed at all the funny parts, of course, but the film stayed with me because of its solid acting, poignant themes, and its unique setting – things that I’ve yet to see matched. Be sure to stay through the end credits, where it warns you that violating their copyright will earn you the “wrath of Bubba Ho-Tep.”