FANGO Flashback: “BUBBA HO-TEP”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
One of the most common complaints this writer hears from hardcore horrorheads is that contemporary scare fare lacks the heart of their predecessors. While there’s always been mean, merciless horror throughout the years, especially those caught in the crossfire of the slasher booms, there is a fair amount of truth to that sentiment. Though that doesn’t mean there aren’t impressively crafted or genuinely terrifying horror offerings nowadays, the organic sense of adventure, character and justice is much less common these days as opposed to the fright films of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Yet perhaps that makes modern horror with that old school heart and soul much more valuable to die-hard fans, which in turn crafts a specific legacy from which a film can gain a second life.
Don Coscarelli’s BUBBA HO-TEP certainly falls into that category, even though the film is now nearly 15 years old at the time of this writing. But still, in the time where J-Horror and Torture Porn made their way into the studio system, BUBBA HO-TEP dared to be different, creating a character-driven tale that was as fantastic as it was funny and frightening. A perfect storm of Coscarelli’s imaginative direction, Joe Lansdale’s superb source material and Bruce Campbell’s natural charisma as Elvis Presley, BUBBA HO-TEP makes the most of its independent means in a way that puts much indie horror from its time frame to shame. And when compared to many of the horror comedies of this day and age, BUBBA HO-TEP is an even more rare example of entertainment that resonates with one’s emotions while still being as bizarre as face value would suggest.
The heart of BUBBA HO-TEP lies in its utterly implausible concept, following the real Elvis Presley as a series of tragedies has led him to be obscure, forgotten and potentially knocking on death’s door in the middle of a Texas-based retirement home. Here, Presley is presented to be the cartoonish figure that many modern portrayals would offer; this Elvis is lonely, ravaged by time and poor health and remorseful that he will never see the ones he loved most ever again. And while there might be a sense of ambiguity to whether or not this Elvis isn’t the delusional impersonator he’s often accused of being in the film, Coscarelli’s world of soul-sucking mummies makes Elvis’ identity nowhere near the most far-fetched plot point of the film.
But from this broken-down and depressed Elvis also comes the desire to restore some former glory in one way or another, and when the titular terror comes into play, Coscarelli gives us a character the audience can truly get behind. Whether it’s bonding with “JFK” (played to hilarious perfection by Ossie Davis in one of his final feature film roles) or taking agency in defending the poor, defenseless people in the nursing home, there’s more to this character than one-liners and hilarious Elvis karate moves. Bruce Campbell instills in this Elvis just the right amount of pathos, and this writer would be willing to wager that there’s a piece of us all reflected back in this protagonist, no matter how ridiculous he may be. Hell, it’s the heart of this character and his fairly over-the-top redemption story that happens to ground BUBBA HO-TEP, transforming Brian Tyler’s score from a southern anthem to evocative fanfare for a selfless soldier.
However, a film like BUBBA HO-TEP is only as strong as the filmmaker crafting it, especially when the material could easily drift into referential parody in the wrong hands. Instead, Don Coscarelli knows when to play the audience for laughs, for tears or for gasps, and eagerly offers an impressive technical palate for each element as it becomes necessary. While many fright filmmakers might find the terror of an imposing, decrepit mummy walking down a dark hallway a terrifying achievement in its own right, Coscarelli goes the extra mile to put a nightmarish stamp on BUBBA HO-TEP, allowing Adam Janeiro’s cinematography to get as weird and unique as need be. And by keeping the proceedings as human-based as possible and only offering the supernatural when absolutely necessary, Coscarelli makes the danger feel real to our heroes, especially when paired to the sad reality behind their admittedly strange existence.
Overall, many burgeoning horror helmers could certainly take a cue from Coscarelli and BUBBA HO-TEP in terms of making modern macabre movies with the heart and atmosphere of ‘80s genre fare. While such storytelling comes effortlessly to Coscarelli, there is something truly special and unfortunately unique about a horror story where you are not only rooting for your lead, but are sharing their inner pain as you champion their potential redemption. And if more screenwriters and filmmakers treated their material with the respect it takes to inject their own heart into the story, they might see a noticeable difference in the results; after all, if an audience can breathe heavy over a story about elderly Elvis, a redneck mummy and an African-American man who believes himself to be an assassinated president, then any other project in the genre has no excuse whatsoever.