American Horror films are often the most derivative of genres. For as long as there’s been film in theaters, horror has been treated as a low-risk, medium reward endeavour. It attracts opportunists and auteurs in equal measure. Even some of the leading lights, like John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, got into the genre hoping to use it as a quick stepping stone to other projects (westerns and comedies, respectively). The first Friday the 13th was created by a soap opera writer on the lam.
Given a brief description of the plot, you could generally place a horror film to the general era that spawned it. A tortured monster wreaking havoc in the European countryside? Thirties to forties. Atomic radiation altering the size of animals to frightening proportions? Fifties and early sixties. There’s a caveat of course following the binge of franchise remakes and reboots in the early decades of the millennium.
All this is to say originality is actually pretty rare in horror. That’s a big part of the joy of Bubba Ho-Tep. Match this plotline to its era: “Ancient Egyptian Mummy feeds on the souls of a retirement home. Only residents Elvis Presley and John F Kennedy stand in his way.”
Horror movies rarely focus on the elderly save for the occasional slumming actor working to stay active. Your late period Joseph Cottons or George Kennedys, cast as the cackling, creeping, creaking phantom menace. In Bubba Ho-Tep the protagonists and victims of the titular monster are all seniors, close to death and listless in life. They don’t offer much sustenance for the soul sucker but also don’t put up a fight.
The setup here is pregnant with possibilities. This could be a film about finding the will to live in the face of death. The oppressive dreariness of end-of-life care. Of how a conviction, even if from a delusion, can animate a person. But ultimately Bubba Ho-Tep leaves this all unsaid and only faintly implied. A myopic film with myopic characters.
The delusions that form the identities of the characters seems to be their sole concern. Elvis is Elvis, JFK is JFK. Any pushback from the staff are rebuffed and serves to further entrench their identity.
But is it really them? Elvis presents an improbable but fully realized account of how he came to be known as Sebastian Haff underscored with flashbacks. In this telling, it was a midlife crisis that went awry that led to switching places with a flawless impersonator (“he was the BEST”) who unwittingly left Elvis marooned in the lie. But perhaps the most compelling argument is in Bruce Campbell’s world weary performance, as if the retirement home is acting as a detox for decades of hedonism. By contrast Ossie Davis adopts none of JFK’s mannerisms. He doesn’t talk in the New England accent. His claims are only bolstered by a suspicious scar behind his ear.
The answer of whether any of these characters are true in their identities are irrelevant, ultimately. Its their conviction, their will, that makes them unattractive to Bubba Ho-Tep while their physical frailty attune them to his presence. Naturally though, the film doesn’t dwell much on it. There are scarabs to squish, monsters to burn, hieroglyphic bathroom graffiti to translate.
Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis are better actors than the roles provided by their careers. After carrying the Evil Dead trilogy, the door slammed shut on any chance of Campbell scoring leading man roles in mainstream Hollywood fare. Meanwhile, Ossie Davis was born into an era where quality roles for blacks became possible, but not in any great quantity that would afford steady work. He shares this lot with Moses Gunn and Paul Winfield. With a little better luck, and maybe a richer baritone, Davis could’ve lucked into some of James Earl Jones’s roles. Both Campbell and Davis leap into Bubba Ho-Tep with a palpable excitement, this their shot, they’re going to take it.
Director Don Coscarelli doesn’t give much meat to his actors, but at the same time treats them evenly and mixes in a touch of pathos to the high camp.