Welcome to Funny Bones, Nightmare On Film Street’s look at horror comedies. Each month, we’ll examine the skeletal structure of a horror-comedy, how the film connects its unique brand of funny and creepy, and the metaphorical fleshy details laid over that skeleton which bring the movie to life!
It’s The Sound of Screams month at Nightmare on Film Street, which means we’re focusing on audio-related horror like music and the cacophony of noises that are generated by feelings of pure fright. So, for this month’s Funny Bones, we’re turning to a film featuring a musical legend and man very familiar with the sound of screams. Except the ones he knows are the joyful shrieks and bellows of his fans. So, how will this musical icon react when he discovers people are being preyed upon by a supernatural menace? That’s one of the central questions of writer/director Don Coscarelli’s (Phantasm) 2002 film Bubba Ho-Tep where a very much alive Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) must battle a soul-sucking mummy! And that’s just the tip of the weirdness iceberg that is this very fun, funny, and surprisingly poignant horror comedy. So come along with me, dear reader, as we delve a little deeper into this wonderfully weird and moving film.
The central premise of Bubba Ho-Tep is that Elvis never died. What actually happened was the King of Rock ‘N Roll had grown tired of his life of drugs, fame, predatory friendships, and joyless work. So, he secretly switched places with America’s top Elvis impersonator, Sebastian Haff. Elvis was content to live out his new life, even when an explosion destroyed all the paperwork proving his true identity and Haff died of a drug overdose. An accident and failing health lands him in an East Texas retirement home where he befriends a man claiming to be another American icon, John F Kennedy (Ossie Davis). When these two unlikely friends discover an undead, Egyptian, mummy consuming the souls of the residents of their retirement home they decide to strike back, and in doing so start to reclaim their dignity.
Normally, this is the part of the column where I examine possible film influences, but Bubba Ho-Tep is actually an adaptation of a novella by Joe R Lansdale which first appeared in an anthology titled The King is Dead. Lansdale is a prolific Edgar and Bram Stoker Award-winning writer whose work often revolves around ludicrous situations (like in this film). Bubba Ho-Tep was the first of his stories to be adapted. Later translations include the 2005 premier episode of Masters of Horror, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (also written and directed by Don Coscarelli), and the Sundance Channel’s Hap and Leonard TV series, which adapted Lansdale’s series of crime novels featuring the titular characters. Lansdale is also one of the executive producers of the 2020 weird western, The Pale Door, and his son, Keith, co-wrote the film with Aaron B Koontz and Cameron Burns.
So, one of the things that makes Bubba Ho-Tep work so well is it’s a product of a singular vision; Lansdale’s larger than life imagination and prose. The other is the way the film blends humor, horror, and heart.
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Much of the humor comes from the ridiculous set up of the film. There are a lot of great jokes that stem from the characters of Jack, Elvis, and especially the evil mummy they’re out to stop. What’s great about the mummy is that, even though he only appears as a monstrous figure, he’s given a ton of personality; most of it terrible. He’s a thousand-year-old being who’s gleefully adapted the worst aspects of Texas culture. He’s also incredibly petty and nasty. He writes crude sayings (in Egyptian hieroglyphics!) on bathroom walls and is prone to vulgar insults as well.
Bubba Ho-Tep focuses more on humor and heart than it does horror, though it still has some pretty creepy moments. Much of that comes from the film’s setting. The Shady Rest Convalescent Home is a very isolating place. It’s always dark and the staff is only around to help after an incident happens, so its residents often feel alone and powerless. Two of the film’s most chilling scenes revolve around that. The first is when a thieving elderly resident steals the glasses of a woman in an iron lung machine and gets away scot-free. You really feel for that woman in the iron lung. Later, a drowsy Elvis sees the thief get her comeuppance when she’s dragged away by the movie’s titular fiend.
The horror and humor elements are great, but what truly makes this film feel special, grounded, and glued together is the emotional core. That’s because, ultimately, Bubba Ho-Tep is a film about regret and empowerment. When you first see Elvis, he’s a haunted figure who spends most of his time wasting away in bed, but the discovery of the marauding mummy reignites something in him. It gives him a chance to reclaim his dignity and be the man he always wanted to be. There are some scenes that are fundamentally ridiculous, like Elvis in his classic, white jump suit strolling down a hallway on a walker with heroic purpose while Jack rolls next to hm in a wheelchair, that will make you both laugh and cheer at the same time.
The reason why Bubba Ho-Tep has so much pathos is the performances, especially the one given by Bruce Campbell. Fans of the Evil Dead franchise know that Campbell is an incredibly gifted comedic actor. The humor chops and swagger that made his Evil Dead character, Ash Williams, so beloved are on display here (especially in Elvis’s fight with a monstrous scarab), but his Elvis is not a silly caricature. He captures the heart of The King of Rock ‘N Roll, and he also makes you feel for this broken and haunted version of Elvis. Opposite him, Ossie Davis is great as Jack. He endows the character with this fun and inspiring sense of gravitas.
“Bubba Ho-Tep work[s] so well [because] of a singular vision; Lansdale’s larger than life imagination and prose. The other is the way the film blends humor, horror, and heart.”
There’s one other aspect of Bubba Ho-Tep that elevates the film’s various elements and makes it perfect for our “Sound of Screams” theme; Brian Tyler’s incredible score. His guitar work gives the film this great, elegiac feel. It makes the scenes of character regret even more haunting, and the scenes where they remember and try to recapture their past glories even more inspiring.
The end credits of Bubba Ho-Tep say, “Elvis will return in Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires.” Unfortunately, that was a joke by Coscarelli, and that film never happened. However, Bubba Ho-Tep’s positive reception did inspire Lansdale to write a follow-up prequel novella titled, Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-suckers, where a younger Elvis battles space vampires! It was published in 2017, and one year later a comic book adaptation of the story was published by IDW.