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Dark Mage's blog: "Bubba Ho Tep"

created on 01/23/2007  |  http://fubar.com/bubba-ho-tep/b47966
At the heart of Bubba Ho-Tep is a surprisingly sincere reflection on old age and regret. It dares to take the aging process and the relationship between two old-timers seriously, in an industry that focuses primarily on sex, youth, and action. These three elements factor in here as well, but they serve more as a longing that the characters wish they still had more than a means of giving in to Hollywood standards. It is a film about finding meaning in the twilight of our days—about living in triumph, even in your final moments. What is surprising is that you won’t have to look too deeply to find the theme: Here is a poignant, character-driven drama, surrounded by a premise so absurd that you wouldn’t have expected anything so deep. Then again, anyone who could possibly dream up this scenario would have to be creative enough to actually make it about something, at least if there is any justice in the world. There is so much going on here that I am tempted not to explain any plot detail at all and let the viewer revel in the film’s ridiculousness and fun, only to be struck hard, as I was, by its emotional impact. But if I am going to give any sort of detailed review, a few things must be revealed. Just keep in mind as I describe some of the plot that this film is first and foremost a drama, cleverly disguised as a horror parody. It is directed by Don Coscarelli of the Phantasm fame, and I can only speculate that he decided to make it after looking into a mirror on the set of one of his gory horror films and thinking, “There must be more to life than this.” The setup: Contrary to popular belief, Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) and JFK (Ossie Davis) did not die as the world believes, but are old, decrepit fogies living in a retirement home in Texas. How they both ended up in this inconceivable predicament could almost make an entire movie unto itself, but it is revealed in clever flashbacks, voiceovers, and narratives. Elvis, fed up with the limelight, traded places with an impersonator, broke his hip, and now lives in isolation with a new name, a pale image of his former self. JFK, after an assassination attempt in Houston, was declared dead and had a piece of his brain containing important information removed and replaced with a bag on sand. He was then dyed black and dropped off into the retirement home’s disturbed ward. Now, the two men are the best of friends, spending most of their time talking about constipation, life’s regrets, isolation, and “getting decadent” with PayDay candy bars. Now, are we really supposed to believe that these men are Elvis and JFK, or just two old guys who have lost their grasp on reality? That answer is a little tricky, as evidence is given that could support either position. But I don’t think that’s the point of the film. It really doesn’t matter whether or not these men are actually who they claim to be. The point is, whether they really are who they think they are or not, their realities have come crashing down around them. Here are two men who have lost everything; their identities and their families have been replaced with condescending nurses, boils on very private places, faded pictures, and hot, Texas air. Of course the premise is absurd, but it works as a very pointed allegory for the nature of retirement homes and their residents. They are often so desolate and despairing that if Elvis and JFK really were in this scenario, no one would ever notice. The movie argues that this is a discouraging thought indeed. Now hold on to your hats—this is about to get a lot weirder. The Bubba Ho-Tep of the title is an ancient Egyptian soul-sucker who stalks the retirement home at night, stealing the souls of the elderly in order to retain immortality. With the help of a how-to book, Elvis and JFK put the pieces together and figure out what is going on: The stronger the soul, the less frequently the mummy must steal them to survive. Because the elderly and dying have weaker souls, he must attack every night. What is, then, the logic to attacking residents of a retirement home? The low profile, Elvis and JFK conclude. The evil Egyptian would rather drain weaker souls from a retirement home because no one would ever notice or suspect the death throes of forgotten elderly. This is, naturally, quite a pickle, but who would believe two old fogies about an Egyptian soul sucker stalking a retirement home—especially two old fogies who claim to be Elvis and JFK? So what are they to do? “I say we move into a new retirement home,” JFK suggests, but Elvis has a more aggressive idea: “Ask not what your rest home can do for you. Ask what you can do for your rest home. We’re gonna kill us a mummy.” Clearly, Bubba Ho-Tep can be taken on one of two different levels: On one level, it is a bizarre hybrid that shamelessly plays its absurdities like a fiddle, dancing about with no rhyme or reason except to entertain the massive cult-following of Bruce Campbell and those who live for crass humor. Another level is to accept this strange storyline as a metaphor for growing old and the respect that is sadly lost to those who live out their final days, seemingly forgotten, in cheap rest homes. I’m going with level #2, because of the way the film carefully builds its two central characters and sees their struggle with the supernatural as a chance to find meaning in life again, despite their cancer, their failing memories, and their mistakes. Bubba Ho-Tep has less in common with The Rocky Horror Picture Show than it does with Johnny Cash’s final music video, “Hurt,” in which the ailing icon sings a sad song about regret and pain surrounded by all of his awards, records, and relics of fame. As death becomes eminent, these possessions grow more and more meaningless, and Cash seems to lament that he would trade them all if he could take back his mistakes and had been a better father, husband, son, etc. Throughout Bubba Ho-Tep, Elvis deals with similar regrets, living a depressed existence in which he wishes that he had treated his wife better, or that he had another opportunity to tell his daughter that he loves her. There is a surprisingly moving scene before Elvis and JFK confront the mummy for a final showdown in which the men admit their past mistakes to each other. JFK concludes that he did the best he could with the responsibilities that he had, but Elvis cannot accept this notion. For him, fighting Bubba Ho-Tep is a chance to be King again, to prove to himself that he is better than his mistakes and his regrets. Of course, the film also works as a comedy, and a particularly charming one because of the audaciousness of its subject matter. Most of the laughs come from the clever dialogue that plays upon the many JFK conspiracy theories (JFK: “Lyndon Johnson is out to kill me!” Elvis: “Jack, LBJ is dead.” JFK: “That’s not going to stop him!”) and Elvis’s battle with drugs (“I liked them, but the guy who took my place liked them a little more.”) and bad career choices (“All my movies were crappy. Every last one of them.”). The laughs never resort to slapstick or toilet human, but are rather carefully constructed from the interactions between the two chief characters. There is a moment in which both men strut down the retirement home’s hall to face the Soul Sucker, Elvis with his walker and JFK in his electronic wheelchair, and we laugh out loud. But the laughs do not come out of bad taste that exploits the men’s handicaps but rather the sincerity in the determination on their iron-willed faces. Campbell and David never pander to the audience; they treat their roles with absolute seriousness, making the comedy earnest and the drama poignant. I know, I know—you’re wondering how I could possibly read such deep themes in what is such an absurd premise. That’s a valid question, but I cannot deny that Bubba Ho-Tep stirred me more emotionally with its bittersweet characters than it did as a comedy or a horror picture. This film takes the legendary statuses of Elvis and JFK seriously, and uses its premise to both poke fun at the Weekly World News-esque stories of their resurrections and sadly reflect on the forgotten elderly of the world. That the Soul Sucker feels compelled to go after the weaker souls because it will allow him to keep a low profile supports this theory: Bubba Ho-Tep’s premise is preposterous, but isn’t it unfortunate that if ancient Egyptian soul-suckers really did exist, this would actually be an ingenious way of making a living? Here are interesting people who have lived long, prosperous lives, filled with stories that we could learn from. How sad that they have been sentenced to obscurity, living out their final days as the rest of us obsess over our youth and health. Bubba Ho-Tep is insightful enough to point out that we’ll all be there some day, and it works as an affectionate love letter to those who are there now. Thank you. Thank you very much. Cast: Bruce Campbell: Elvis Presley Ossie Davis: “Jack” Kennedy Bob Ivy: Bubba Ho-Tep Ella Joyce: The Nurse Heidi Marnhout: Callie A film by Silver Sphere Corporations. Written and directed by Don Coscarelli, from the short story by Joe R. Lansdale. Rated R, for brief violence, language, and plenty of sexual innuendo. Running time: 92 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: September 19, 2003.
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