I have a soft spot for insanity. Not the dangerous, drown-the-neighbor’s-dog-because-it’s-the-product-of-Satan’s-evil-seed kind. The kind that serves as confetti-strewn birth canal to art that makes you firmly believe that god is real, he wants us to be happy, and he currently has a trumpet sticking out of his ass. Bubba Ho-Tep is about an aged Elvis (Bruce Campbell), assisted by JFK (Ossie Davis), fighting a soul-eating mummy dressed like a cowboy in a rest home. And yes, that sound you just heard was the Almighty farting “Taps.”
It sounds like something I would make up. With the possible exceptions of Bigfoot and Audrey Hepburn, there are no pop culture icons dearer to my heart than Elvis and JFK. I also possess an abiding affection for mummies, which is partly due to the fact that every hack writer in existence has yet to wipe their collective ass with Egyptian undead. Such a bizarre stew of a movie shouldn’t work, but director Don Coscarelli (mastermind behind the delightfully mad Phantasm series) forces it to by having the courage of his convictions. And a little bit of the good crazy.
On a certain level, anything involving Elvis is going to bear the whiff of the ridiculous. The key is understanding and embracing this. The Elvis of Bubba Ho-Tep is a profoundly wounded hero, a man who has scaled the giddy heights of excess and found it an empty and humbling experience. He acknowledges that by the end, he wasn’t himself anymore, “just this thing they made up.” He hates that he’s become useless, weak and asexual. He regrets not firing the Colonel. He regrets not being a better husband and father. He regrets his wasted life, waiting to die in a bare room cooled only by a single rickety fan. That wasted life is symbolized rather unpleasantly by the frequently described but thankfully never seen growth on the head of Elvis’s penis. No, seriously. The doctors don’t know what it is, but Elvis suspects it’s a tumor and that no one will tell him because they expect that age will kill him before the cancer has a chance. It’s a sobering thought, that at a certain point even a life-threatening disease doesn’t really matter. Time waits for no man, not even rock legends and ex-Presidents.
That the denizens of a rest home should start dying by unexplained means isn’t a surprise. In fact, that’s part of Bubba Ho-Tep’s plan. He eats souls, and though the “small souls” of the elderly don’t provide much nourishment, they’re easy pickings and no one asks any questions. Elvis and JFK discover the mummy’s plot and in that find something to do with the remainder of their lives. It’s a poignant search for meaning when everything meaningful as passed them by and forgotten them. If Elvis and JFK feel the need to fill their final days with hunting the undead, what hope do the rest of us have for satisfaction?
Of course, that begs the question: how much of what we see in the film is real? Elvis, after all, is dead; the man checked into the rest home is Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff. He claims that he is the real Elvis, and that he traded lives with Haff when his real life became unbearable. The nurse counters that he suffered an accident which led to a coma and resulting dementia. This version of events gains credence with the character of JFK, played by Ossie Davis. Davis is a wonderful screen presence, able to inject odd material with the right mix of warmth and whimsy. He is also a black man. John F. Kennedy was white. And not just white, but extremely white. Karen Carpenter white. Biting-your-lower-lip-while-arrhythmically-dancing white. JFK stubbornly insists “they” dyed him black (and also that they replaced part of his brain with sand). It’s a testament to Davis’s performance that you end up believing him. At least you want to believe that the leader of the free world is someone as open-minded, warm and clearheaded as Davis’s Jack. Honestly if he ran tomorrow, I’d vote for him.
If Elvis and JFK are both benignly delusional seniors, what to make of the mummy? The damn thing might not be real, but rather the product of these two addled minds in an effort to give their lives meaning. They’re no longer two abandoned old men slowly rotting in East Texas, but two icons of American culture fighting the ultimate evil. By accepting most of what the two men say, the film makes the argument that it doesn’t matter whether or not the mummy is real. What matters is the purpose that Elvis and JFK find in the struggle against it. Don’t curse the darkness. Get a fucking flamethrower.
When discussing how to bring the mummy down, JFK informs Elvis that: “fire cleanses evil.” This sets up the metaphorical flamethrower (which is an actual flamethrower, much like my personal El Guapo is the actual El Guapo) that Elvis uses on Bubba Ho-Tep. More importantly though, it refers to the contract that Haff and Elvis had. Basically, if Elvis ever wanted to trade their lives back, Haff had to let him. A grilling accident consumed that contract (and Elvis’s double-wide) in a fireball. This was his last connection to the evil life that had burned him out. Fire cleansed a metaphorical Bubba Ho-Tep then and will cleanse the actual Bubba Ho-Tep later.
Bubba Ho-Tep goes deeper into the rabbit hole of symbols when viewed from a metaphysical standpoint. The mummy eats souls and literally craps them out (JFK figures this out when he discovers some hieroglyphic graffiti scratched into the guest stalls that details some scandalous information on Cleopatra’s sexual appetites). This means that whatever the afterlife holds, the mummy robs his victims of it. He is an inversion of a psychopomp, taking the dead from the gray limbo of the rest home, not to their reward, but to the toilet as so much mummy shit. The film is very careful never to actually define what the afterlife is. The characters don’t know (and don’t really know that an afterlife is waiting for certain), but they at least want the possibility. It’s telling that no character that actively fights Bubba Ho-Tep loses his soul: the struggle itself is the benediction. The other side communicates with this one only once, when a comforting message appears in the sky written in hieroglyphics that Elvis is able to understand: All is well.
Elvis can read the heiroglyphs because he’s Jesus. Actually, he’s Horus, since the Jesus myth was shamelessly ripped off from earlier Egyptian sources. Western audiences don’t know the origins of their religion (in fact, if they did, they would probably realize how silly the whole thing is), so it’s easier to say that Elvis is Jesus. He had humble origins but was also King, was tempted in a desert (Las Vegas), was metaphorically baptized by John (F. Kennedy) and exorcised demonic influence. In the end of the film, he’s even brought low by a wound to the side, and the promise of a sequel (Bubba Nosfetatu: Curse of the She-Vampires) implies resurrection.
That’s not to say the film is all ponderous allegory. It just infuses the comedy with enough pathos so that by the end of the film, the deeper meanings shine through even if they don’t register consciously. It’s also the finest acting Bruce Campbell has ever done, and since the guy is already a national treasure, that’s saying something. There is simply no other movie like it: a poignant film about growing old in which Bruce Campbell’s Elvis and Ossie Davis’s JFK fight a mummy dressed as a cowboy. If that doesn’t make you want to see Bubba Ho-Tep, I don’t know what to tell you.