Horror is often considered a young person’s genre. From about the 1950s onward, the target audience for most theatrical horror releases has been young people—teenagers on dates at the drive-in gave way to gorehounds in the ’80s, to the kids who flocked to any and every PG-13 horror movie to receive a wide release in the 2000s. It’s not just the audience that’s primarily made of young people, either; teenagers became the most common protagonists in horror movies, particularly with the rise of the slasher film. So inextricably linked were the two that Roger Ebert began referring to the genre as the “Dead Teenager Movie,” because audiences were more or less paying to see people their own age screw around, have a good time, and get hacked up by a guy in a mask. These were movies as much for teenagers as they were about teenagers.
But every once in a while, a special horror movie comes around that completely bucks the trend. One such movie is Don Coscarelli’s 2002 cult classic, Bubba Ho-Tep, a horror film about a pair of senior citizens fighting off an ancient mummy in a retirement home. They’re not just any senior citizens, either; one claims to be Elvis Presley (played by the incomparable Bruce Campbell in his best screen performance), having faked his death years earlier and now spending his last years alone, miserable, and horny, while the other claims to be John F. Kennedy (played by Ossie Davis), who survived the assassination attempt, had his skin dyed black, and got dumped in a nursing home by Lyndon B. Johnson. The King and JFK take it upon themselves to team up, bring down the mummy, and save the residents of the Shady Rest Retirement Home—and maybe the whole world, too.
Bubba Ho-Tep is a horror film so eccentric and idiosyncratic it could only have been made by Don Coscarelli, a filmmaker whose entire career consists of movies that are idiosyncratic and eccentric, from the Phantasm franchise through John Dies at the End (to date his most recent feature). Based on a novella by celebrated genre author Joe R. Lansdale, it’s a story that, on paper, sounds too ridiculous to ever work. The miracle of Coscarelli’s adaptation, though, is that it not only embraces the lunacy of Lansdale’s narrative choices, but also manages to find a huge beating heart in there, too. The film version of Bubba Ho-Tep is as much about senior citizens fighting off an ancient evil as it is about growing old and facing the final days of one’s life. It’s about maintaining dignity even as your body is failing you. It’s about feeling abandoned by the people who are supposed to take care of you, even those you once raised. The genius of Bubba Ho-Tep is that it isn’t only a horror movie that features old people as its protagonists. It’s a horror movie about what it is to be old.
Enough praise can’t be heaped on Bruce Campbell, a horror icon beloved for his sense of humor and oversized bravado (and also his chin). Casting him as an aging Elvis is particularly inspired: he has the look of an Elvis impersonator, he has the same sense of showmanship, and he is an icon in his own right. Of course he’s going to be a ton of fun in the role, playing an Elvis who is surly and bitter but still has that glint of the King’s penchant for getting into trouble. What I didn’t expect on my first viewing of the movie—and what continues to surprise me each time I revisit it—is how much dramatic weight Campbell’s performance carries. He’s an actor who made a name for himself by being broad and cartoony, especially in the second and third Evil Dead movies, where the approach matched the tone of the movies he was in. His work in Bubba Ho-Tep is much more subdued and even sad, despite the fact that he’s playing an old Elvis fighting a mummy. He is moving in a film that is also deeply moving when it’s not being silly, weird, and funny. This story is an incredible high-wire act. Leave it to Don Coscarelli to pull it off.
Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray of Bubba Ho-Tep appears to use an existing HD master, so it’s not quite up to the quality of their recent releases like Carrie and The Thing, for which they struck their own new scans. It still looks good, though, presented in 1080p HD in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio; some of the darker sequences are a little hard to make out and the HD treatment gives away some of the latex makeup worn by Bruce Campbell, but for the most part it offers strong details and consistent color. Two lossless audio options are offered: one stereo mix and a 5.1 DTS HD surround mix.
Many of the bonus features have been carried over from MGM’s loaded special edition DVD from 2004, including an audio commentary with Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell, plus a second audio commentary with Bruce Campbell in character as Elvis (which is amusing for a few minutes but wears out its welcome before long). There are deleted scenes playable with optional Coscarelli/Campbell commentary, plus featurettes on the makeup, costumes, the music, and a general “making of” featurette. The footage of author Joe R. Lansdale reading from his original story has made its way over, as well as an interview with Campbell, a music video, a still gallery and a collection of TV spots and trailers. New to this Scream Factory edition is a commentary with author Lansdale, plus brand new HD interviews with Coscarelli, Campbell, and Robert Kurtzman (formerly the “K” of KNB EFX Group), who did the movie’s special makeup effects.
Bubba Ho-Tep, like every movie made by the great Don Coscarelli, is a totally singular experience, a film that, while clearly a horror movie, can’t easily be compared to any other horror movie. Featuring Bruce Campbell’s best performance and a great relationship between him and a really fun, playful Ossie Davis, it’s a movie that is great as much for its horror elements as its non-horror elements. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray has a bunch of really cool supplements, making for the definitive edition of this well-deserved cult classic. Hail to the (other) King.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5