Western Film WTF: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
A marvelously odd horror film in which an ancient Elvis finds himself battling a cowboy hat-wearing mummy in an East Texas retirement home.
by Max Sparber
There are a couple of cowboys in "Bubba Ho-Tep," director Don Coscarelli's adaptation of a story by Joe R. Lansdale, who may be the premiere writer of Weird Westerns. The film is set in an East Texas retirement home filled with delusional elders, and one of them believes himself to be the Lone Ranger. He dresses in a mask and white cowboy hat and tends to draw and fire cap guns when he gets startled.
There is also a much older character who dresses in fancy cowboy boots and a 10-gallon-hat and stalks the home's halls at night, sucking the souls of the aged right out of their bodies. He is the title character, Bubba Ho-Tep, and he is an ancient mummy, and the film never explains why he dresses like a cowboy. The original short story barely explains it either, but perhaps its just that he is old and in East Texas and old East Texans get a little delusional, thinking they are something they are not.
The original story had a woman who was convinced she was the gangster John Dillinger, who survived her assassination and got a sex change to hide from the law. She doesn't appear in the film, but John F. Kennedy does — or, at least, Ossie Davis, playing an elderly Black man convinced he is Jack Kennedy. He argues that he was hidden away and dyed black, and, furthermore, his brain has been replaced by sand, the original still in Washington connected to a battery, still communicating with him.
Elvis is also in the retirement home, or, perhaps, an Elvis impersonator who became confused after falling off a stage, breaking his hip, and going into a coma. He's played by Bruce Campbell in what there seems to be collective consensus is the finest performance in his career. Campbell reigns in his usual satire of a selfish tough guy in favor of a subdued impression of Elvis and a sense of the performer's genial bonhomie.
In old photos and films Elvis was always smiling and kidding around, and that's never represented on film. It isn't really represented here, except in flashback. The older Elvis is exhausted and bitter, but, as he and Jack Kennedy join forces against the mummy, you see flashes of the young Elvis. He starts joking around, his seemingly bottomless self-pity replaced by curiosity and an urge to act, to do something, to be a hero.
Coscarelli's film hews very closely to Lansdale's original story, even preserving an enormous amount of the dialogue, and while there has recently been a fine adaptation of Lansdale's Hap and Leonard stories, this is one of the few representations of Lansdale's wilder supernatural works (although I haven't seen the film adaptation of "Christmas with the Dead," which Landsdale helped produce and starred country singer Kasey Lansdale, who is his daughter.) Coscarelli is a filmmaker that has never shied away from weirdness, and so he preserves the essential hothouse balminess of the original story.
Much of the film is comedic as a result, greatly benefiting from its cast's profound commitment to their roles: Ossie Davis was always a very fine actor, and, when he hisses at Elvis, saying "I'm thinking with sand here," he offers it with total deadpan commitment.
And the film makes a decision that undermines the original story's ambiguity, in that the show Elvis in flashback, giving credibility to his insistence that he is actually Elvis. But this has the effect of making it seem genuinely possible that Davis is, in fact, Jack Kennedy, and any film that wants you to think that geriatric versions of Elvis and Kennedy spend their last days fighting a mummy in a Texas retirement home is making a marvelously bananas demand of the audience.
But it also takes away some of the poignancy of the original story, the sadness and loneliness of it, where there is a place filled with abandoned old people who have invented stories about themselves as a mechanism for battling the anonymity of their experience. Where they aren't simply ancient nobodies whose lives will end up in a garbage bin when they die, but instead forgotten heroes, and they are capable of heroism again.
And there is an unspoken possibility created by this, buried deep in the subtext but nonetheless credible: That our heroes aren't actually battling an ancient mummy, but instead another resident of the retirement home who has convinced himself he is Egyptian royalty. And they murder him.