Despite the obviously bizarre subject matter of Don Coscarelli's wonderful film, "Bubba Ho-tep", it is very easy to see what originally attracted the cult director of the "Phantasm series" to Jon R. Lansdale's forty-page short story. The location may have changed from the sepulchral environs of a small-town funereal house to a dilapidated rest home in Mud Creek, Texas, but the goings on inside both prove to be not that dissimilar: instead of bodies surreptitiously snatched from their graves by an alien "tall man" to make a race of dwarf creatures, we have the fading souls of a rest home's elderly residents sucked-up by a 3000 year-old Egyptian mummy; and instead of flying, silver, head-drilling spheres, we get giant, air-born scarab beetles, whizzing around the deserted, night-time hallways of the "Shady Rest" retirement home for the elderly!
The film also continues Coscarelli's obsession with how we treat the spectre of death in modern culture; while "Phantasm" exploited our unease with the modern symbols of death -- such as hearses, funeral directors and coffins -- and crafted an unsettling fantasy around our mix of dread and curiosity over what happens to our bodies after we depart this mortal coil, "Bubba Ho-tep" focuses on the indignities of growing old in a youth-orientated culture with the aid of two of America's greatest icons: Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy! Once they were the ultimate symbols of vitality, virility and youthful optimism; now they lie neglected and forgotten in a run-down home for old folks -- believed dead, along with America's naïvely optimistic self-image. How these two crushed icons haul themselves back from the brink of helpless despair through their battle to save their rest home friends from a soul-sucking mummy, forms the unlikely backdrop to this beautifully judged fantasy/comedy/drama. Chock-full of absurdist humour and imaginatively realised fantasy/horror sequences (as were Coscarelli's Phantasm films) Lansdale's source material also lends the film a mature, reflective tone -- apparently, irredeemably at odds with the crazy world of Black JFKs and skeletal mummies in cowboy boots but, somehow, blending in perfectly -- thanks largely to Brian Tyler's lilting, twangy guitar-based score which brings the redemptive mood of a Spaghetti Western to this tale of Elvis on a walking-frame and a wheelchair-bound JFK!
Some canny casting by Don Coscarelli certainly helps the film in its aims. Presumably, the director could have cast a seventy-year-old actor as Elvis, but instead he went for cult, genre favourite Bruce Campbell and plastered him in an elaborate Elvis makeup job curtesy of the skilful KNB EFXs Group. This proves to be a masterstroke: first of all, if there were any doubts concerning a modern audience's willingness to sit through a ninety-minute film abut two old geezers in a rest home, then it is surely neutralised by the knowledge that it's everybody's favourite, Bruce Campbell underneath the rubber and latex appliances; secondly, if anyone who can make such a ridiculous premise as an old-age Elvis battling a 3000 year-old mummy seem believable and even touching, then it definitely has to be Mr Campbell! The actor does a fine job of balancing a semi-ironic, comic performance -- in which all of the King's catch-phrases find themselves wheeled out at appropriately amusing moments -- with a seriously dramatic portrayal of a person facing death while full of regret for a past of missed opportunities and wounded pride at the undignified predicament he now finds himself in. The once sexually-rampant rock icon is now virtually bedridden and suffering from an emasculating, puss-filled, cancerous growth on his penis! The dethroned king -- who once made every female within a hundred yard radius go weak at the knees -- now has to suffer the embarrassment of having his limp member "greased" daily by a patronising nurse! Treated like a child by staff and administrators of the rest home alike (one of whom is played by "Phantasm" star, Reggie Bannister), Elvis has nothing left but to reflect on the life of fame and wealth he gave up after swapping places with Elvis tribute artist Sebastian Haff -- the person who really died on the crapper in Graceland while the real Elvis was in a coma, induced by an infected hip after a stage tumble! But after the old, mad, black guy who claims to be JFK informs him that a soul-sucking mummy is behind the unusually high death rate at the rest home, the King begins to gradually regain his mojo: the crumbled old safari jacket is eventually cast aside and the sequinned jump-suits and (arthritic) karate chops are dusted off once more! Even his cancer-ridden crankshaft begins to show signs of vitality! Accompanying Campbell's lovely performance is veteran actor, writer, producer and director Ossie Davis's beautifully understated comic performance as JFK. Davis plays his absurd role with deadpan seriousness, thus increasing its comedy value tenfold! The film's only real fault is that the mummy's character is not sketched as fully as the two heroes: he writes hieroglyphic graffiti on the toilet wall and walks around in cowboy boots and a stetson, but he is eventually reduced to just another beastie for Elvis and JFK to bond over as they prepare for battle.
Anchor Bay UK release the film in the UK in a fantastic double-disc set which includes all of the extras from the MGM region 1 release and adds a whole bunch more -- specially commissioned by the company! Disc one features a nice anamorphic, widescreen transfer with a great commentary track by Campbell and Coscarelli. There are also two rather nice easter eggs included: scrolling down to the "audio options" section and press the right arrow key will highlight a telephone on Elvis's bedside table. Press "enter" and you will see a video introduction by Bruce Campbell, recorded for the film's original UK premier. Highlighting Elvis's sunglasses on the Audio options menue will reveal a hidden commentary track by the King himself! He munches popcorn while bemoaning the amount of cussing in modern movies and even regales us with some new material he's been working on since going into hiding! The disc also features SDH subtitles for the film.
Disc two gives us biographies of Campbell, Davis and Coscarelli -- and also an easter egg on the biographies page reveals fake biographies of Sebastian Haff, JFK and Bubba Ho-tep! There are several deleted scenes (and also a commentary track for them which is also hidden as an easter egg). "The Making Of Bubba Ho-tep" is a forty-five minute documentary on the movie which covers every aspect of the production and interviews with all of the cast. A theatrical trailer and a music video round off the extras which were all also present on the region 1 disc, but Anchor Bay UK are far from finished! You will also find a twenty-minute interview with Don Cascarelli from Nucleus films; footage from the Q & A session at the movie's UK premier; and an extra ten-minute interview with Bruce Campbell!
"Bubba Ho-tep" has been a great word-of-mouth success in the States and is surely destined for cult status in the UK as well. This UK disc is surely the definitive release of the film and is highly recommended.