Swirling ’Round the Toilet Bowl of Life: A Review of Bubba Ho-Tep
By Amy M. Vaughn
Bubba Ho-Tep (2003) is a shining example of one the best uses of horror comedy. While it might be a philosophically profound and morally strengthening act, few us willingly spend our time contemplating the fact that we are insignificant turds swirling the toilet bowl of life, but that is exactly what Bubba Ho-Tepconfronts us with. Put Bruce Campbell in old age Elvis makeup and add an ancient Egyptian mummy in cowboy gear, and it takes the sting out a bit.
Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of an elderly Elvis and his friend Jack, played by Ossie Davis, who may or may not be JFK dyed black. The two men live at the Mud Creek Shady Rest Convalescent Home, where ill omens are afoot. A situation that starts with giant and oddly anthropomorphic scarabs quickly escalates to a full-blown mummy who sucks souls out of the living through any orifice, though he seems to have a penchant for assholes.
Elvis has been wasting away, contemplating the pustule on his pecker, lamenting bad decisions, and cursing his fate. Much of the joy in this film comes from watching both him and Jack become reinvigorated, as much as their old bodies will let them, in the hunt for the mummy and the fight to protect the other residents of the home.
As with any low budget cult classic, there are endearing goofs every once in a while—a boom mic in the bathroom mirror, the dummy Elvis’ head flying off when the wheelchair plunges down the riverbank. But the story itself is so delightfully strange that, while the interior corridors obviously won’t fit inside what is shown as the exterior of the rest home, we go along with it. Hell, at ten minutes in we’ve already bought into old Elvis, black JFK, and a cowboy mummy; we aren’t about to start scrutinizing minutia. We are securely along for the ride.
The pacing is slow in places, but how could it not be? A substantial part of this movie’s charm lies in the very elderliness of our heroes, and they stay elderly, never magically moving the action along by running or fighting or even walking that fast.
Another element some may see as detrimental is the abundance of base and especially scatological humor. To me, this is an absolutely necessary element and crucial to what makesBubba Ho-Tepspecial. The first explanation for this reliance on potty talk comes from Elvis himself early in the film when he asks, “Is there, finally and really, anything to life other than food, shit and sex?”
In this crudeness, Don Coscarelli (Phatasm, John Dies at the End), who adapted the screenplay as well as directed and co-produced Bubba Ho-Tep, is capturing something essential to the original story by Joe Lansdale, something that may be disturbing or uncouth to those of us who wall ourselves away from the processes of death. Elvis, the novella’s narrator tells us, “could hardly think of himself or life in any context other than sewage, since so often he was too tired to do anything other than let it all fly in his sleep, wake up in an ocean of piss or shit, waiting for the nurses or the aides to come in and wipe his ass.”
Both the film and the book make humorous use of the awareness that the older we get, the more life is pared down to the most basic bodily functions: eating, sleeping, pissing, shitting. Laughing at death is the point of horror comedy, and as far as I know, no one else has nailed the juxtaposition of crass laughs and the very real physical and psychological manifestations of life wrapping itself up like Bubba Ho-Tep. It is gallows humor at its finest.
(If there haven’t been spoilers yet, there will be now.)
The final strikingly unique feature in a film full of strikingly unique features is how the hero’s death is portrayed. (I told you there’d be spoilers.) From the beginning, this has been a movie about growing old, about losing control of our bowels and our choices, about feeling worthless and good-for-nothing. Elvis is a mummy too, in his own way, who comes back to life for one last adventure, and when his righteous undertaking consumes him, it is bittersweet. Most horror comedies (1) have young people cast as leads, making their deaths de factotragedies and (2) rarely stay with a dying character long enough for us to contemplate what significance their death may hold; but when Elvis dies, we sit with him, we hear his thoughts, and we know there is no other way he would have wanted to go.
4 out of 5 inflamed penispustules
Bubba Ho-Tep can be streamed through Tubi, Vudu, Prime, and iTunes.
Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books. Among them are Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and The Shelter (Cabal Books, forthcoming). She is also serving as editor for Dog Doors to Outer Space: A Compilation of Bizarro Writing Prompts (Filthy Loot, forthcoming). Amy lives in Tucson and online wherever writers go to avoid writing.