Filmmaker Don Coscarelli is synonymous with the deathlessly popular Phantasm franchise he created in 1979. However, he’s worked in other genres over the years and created a few other cult favorites. Cable staple The Beastmaster is a notable example… but his best non-Phantasm work has to be Bubba Ho-Tep, a quietly surreal collaboration with Texas genre author Joe R. Lansdale. Not only is this gem a crowd-pleaser for the genre set but it is also a surprisingly mature work with some thoughts on the human condition that extend beyond cult movie concerns.
The film’s premise is one for the ages. In a rural Texas nursing home, Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell) waits for the end of his days. He is known to the world as an Elvis impersonator but he claims to be the King himself, having switched places with the real Sebastian to get some peace. He discovers that a malevolent spirit is roaming the nursing home’s halls at night and taking the lives of his fellow patients – and said spirit is a long-lost mummy.
Sebastian’s only ally in the fight is Jack (Ossie Davis), who claims to be former president John Kennedy… he’s an elderly black man but has an elaborate conspiracy theory to explain it. The two men put their personal demons aside to fight the supernatural menace and maybe gain some degree of long-lost dignity in the process.
The resulting film delivers all the premise promises: you get imaginative alternate-history version of Elvis and JFK’s fates, there is a suitably creepy mummy and there is a human-vs-monster battle royale for a finale. Coscarelli was an old hand at horror by this point and he deploys all these commercial elements with a confident hand and plenty of atmosphere.
The director’s fans will be amused by a scene where Campbell has to battle with a flying scarab beetle – it’s very much a callback to a similar scene in Phantasm. He gets a lot out of small budget and makes good use of horror-friendly actors like Reggie Bannister and Daniel Roebuck. It’s also worth noting that he got a stellar rock score by Brian Tyler that enhances the film’s atmosphere and mood in a big way.
However, what makes Bubba Ho-Tep rewarding and rewatchable is that has a whole other layer that the premise does not suggest. Beneath all its fanciful elements, the script – faithfully adapted by Coscarelli from the Lansdale story – is really a meditation on facing the end of life with dignity. The film devotes most of its time to Sebastian and how his friendship with Jack and realization of the danger around him inspires him to reclaim his self-respect as he commits to helping a friend and taking on a mutual enemy. Its imbued with a belief in the good side of humanity that lends it an emotional depth you won’t see coming.
This approach works for a couple of reasons. The first is the storytelling approach, which never devolves into campiness or cheap thrills. Instead, it makes the oddball premise work by playing it straight and investing in the characters. The second is the stellar acting from Campbell and Davis. Campbell is a cult movie icon for his work in the Evil Dead films but it’s his work here that makes a case for his skills. Like the script, he avoids camp gestures to make the unbelievable compelling: he captures the Elvis mannerisms but actually gives a low-key, wryly humorous performance that handles the Lansdale-derived dialogue beautifully.
Similarly, Davis keeps his eccentric character from being silly by investing him with an impressive amount of warmth and dignity. He also has a great knack for deadpan line deliveries and his chemistry with Campbell makes their shared scenes a delight to watch.
It’s a shame that Coscarelli hasn’t done more Lansdale adaptations because Bubba Ho-Tep is easily his most accomplished work. It’s got a heartfelt quality that even those who don’t like horror films can appreciate and is a key title for Campbell, Coscarelli and Lansdale fans alike.