Bubba Ho-Tep: Collector’s Edition
Program Length: 92 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1
May 25th, 2004
Before I write another word, I must profess that I absolutely love the Evil Dead movies, and am a huge fan of the inexcusably underrated Bruce Campbell. That being the case, as a reviewer, I did my absolute best to be impartial when it came to Bubba Ho-Tep, a horror/comedy about two senior citizens battling a mummy in a rest home! Oh, and these are not just your ordinary seniors – we’re talking about a grumpy, geriatric Elvis Presley and a black John F. Kennedy! Sound good so far? Well ladies and gents, you haven’t heard anything yet, so let’s get down to business and kick some undead a$$!
Based on a short story by author Joe R. Lansdale, director Don Coscarelli’s (the man who gave us The Beastmaster! ) Bubba Ho-Tep is a wild, weird movie that provides a refreshing step back from what the studios have been passing off as horror-comedies these days. In the strictest sense, I suppose this doesn’t qualify as a “true” horror or comedy film though, so let’s just say that Bubba Ho-Tep is a film with elements of both genres in it.
Here is the scoop: The man buried in “The King’s” grave is a phony. Apparently, Elvis got weary of all the bad things that went along with being so revered, so he devised a plan to switch places with a man possessing an uncanny ability to impersonate him. Unfortunately, after the switch, circumstances prevented the two from trading places again, and when the phony Elvis bought the farm, the real McCoy was relegated to an impoverished existence in a trailer park. As it would seem, Elvis’ plan to get out of the spotlight for a while became unwittingly permanent.
Things only got worse from there though, as Elvis broke a hip, slipped into a coma, and awoke to find himself tucked away in a rest home in lovely Mud Creek, Texas. Now all that is left for the old fellow, broken in both body and spirit, is to hold on to his warm, fuzzy memories of life at the top, and wait for death to claim him. Ironically, it is in this setting that Elvis would become the action hero he never was during his ultra-cheesy film career! To be more specific, it is there, in the Shady Rest retirement home, where the cantankerous “King” must unite with his sidekick - an older African-American man claiming to be JFK (Ossie Davis), to dispatch an ancient soul-swallowing mummy named Bubba Ho-Tep (Bob Ivy) back into the afterlife.
Hogwash, you say? Well, perhaps the script, penned by Don Coscarelli (and based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale) is a little on the far-fetched side , but don’t let that scare you off, because this is one of the most bizarre and imaginative films to come along in recent memory. And though I wasn’t expecting much from the guy who gave us the Phantasm series, Don Coscarelli displays a confident touch, working within the confines of a very small budget by utilizing effects shots very sparingly but effectively, and be developing the film’s sensitive side to a great degree. Really, there much more of an air of seriousness in this film than I was expecting, and even now I find it hard to fathom that I feel this way about a film where a cowboy boot wearing mummy removes souls from the anal orifices of senior citizens.
Better still, Coscarelli is clearly not afraid to push the envelope a little bit. The fact that he is faithful to Lansdale’s graphic story, where Elvis Presley appears as an aging, hobbled action hero who is forced to do battle with an undead creature supplies ample evidence for my opinion, I think. Bottom line: Coscarelli has guts, and this film goes for all the marbles instead of playing it safe, which is truly admirable in these times when the Hollywood establishment seems to be over-reliant on rehashing previous ideas.
Getting back to a statement I made earlier, one of the things I found interesting about Bubba Ho-Tep is how somewhere in the middle of its outrageous premise, the filmmakers develop an unexpected amount of depth to the Elvis character. Indeed, his expressions of remorse for abandoning his daughter Lisa Marie are surprising for a movie of this type, and make this version of Elvis a truly sympathetic character. The King wondering whether Priscilla and Lisa Marie would visit if they knew he was alive is a truly touching moment. The film also paints a touching portrait of the loneliness and despair that can set in on the elderly residents of rest homes, some of whom can do little more than while away the hours until their demise by wondering why their family and friends never visit. I don’t want to get depressed, or depress you, so I’ll move on now…
What can I say about Bruce Campbell (without sounding like a geeked-up fanboy)? I’ll keep it simple: Bruce Campbell is the heartbeat of this film! He adds a lot to the proceedings, putting on film one of the more flavorful Elvis impersonations I have ever seen. It is all there - the unique vocal character, mannerisms, and appearance – but Campbell spices it up with some of the “groovy” qualities he endowed Ash (Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy) with. Better still, Campbell infuses the character with a humanity and complexity that I knew he was capable of, but still did not fully anticipate, especially given the silly premise the film is based on. This is good, professional work, and I hope it leads to some more respect for the woefully under-appreciated Bruce Campbell!
Campbell’s co-star Ossie Davis, who I have never seen playing anything but straight-laced characters, also seems to have had an absolute blast playing former President JFK! Though his role is almost as bizarre as Bruce Campbell’s, Davis exhibits absolute conviction in his performance, and lends a lot of credibility to the film. Let’s face it, this material borders on being ridiculous, but the actors and filmmakers give it a loving treatment, allowing the viewer to get wrapped up in this crazy adventure! To its credit, the film never reveals if “The King” and JFK are really who they claim to be, but again, the characters take themselves so seriously that it really doesn’t matter in the least! In fact, the camaraderie that develops between these two men is the driving force behind the picture.
For all of these reasons, although I would not say it is very effective as a horror film, Bubba Ho-Tep deserves high marks for its effectiveness as an offbeat “buddy” comedy. Simply put, the humor (some of it quite tasteless) and unexpected sensitivity in Bubba Ho-Tep reign supreme, even though the less-than-frightening titular character is clearly outmatched by Elvis from the beginning. In my humble opinion, this is an example of indie filmmaking at its best, and very obviously a product of talented people (working for little to no money) who poured every ounce of their abilities into this project. Bubba Ho-Tep is truly a movie that I hope reaches a wider audience on DVD!!! Long live “The King”!!!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Brought to home video by MGM in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), Bubba Ho-Tep looks outstanding! The color palette of the dreary Shady Rest home is a bit dreary, but it is rendered accurately, without smearing. Flesh tones also appear to be spot-on. Furthermore, fine detail is excellent throughout the film, with Elvis’ age spots and Bubba Ho-Tep’s absurd costume showing up in all of their glory!
Unfortunately, blacks exhibit a little muddiness on occasion, which swallows up shadow detail to a small degree from time to time. At least the negative effects are nominal, and I would venture to guess that this has more to do with the film’s budget and the lighting techniques used than the telecine process. More importantly, aside from some aliasing around the balloons on the left of the screen right before the 20-minute mark, edge enhancement halos and other digital artifacts appeared to be absent, and compared to the two times I have seen this theatrically the print is spectacularly clean (though there are still some specks visible).
Overall, despite its slightly less than stellar black level, I have to give Bubba Ho-Tep high marks for image quality. Kudos to MGM for lavishing this amount of attention on such an offbeat film!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the audio track for Bubba Ho-Tep is every bit as solid as the transfer! Specifically, the soundstage is quite spacious, and frequency response is nice and even, which allows both dialogue and Brian Tyler’s eclectic score to come through loud and clear, without any audible anomalies or hissing. Indeed, when this film is supposed to be quiet, it is quiet, almost to the point you could hear a pin drop.
While the film is chiefly a front-heavy experience, there is a bit of active rear channel usage, particularly during the scenes where Elvis seems to be hallucinating, when he battles the scarab beetle, or during the bizarre flashback to ancient Egypt. The subwoofer comes into play in like fashion, adding punch to the proceedings whenever the source material requires it, especially during Elvis’ incognito performances as Sebastian Haff.
It is not quite demo material, but all in all, Bubba Ho-Tep’s Dolby Digital audio does a very good job of reproducing the source material.
Audio Commentary #1
In the first audio commentary, director Don Coscarelli and star Bruce Campbell get to chatting, and although the result is certainly more than acceptable, I was left wanting. Maybe I am being a bit unreasonable, but considering the two individuals speaking, this track seemed less lively and amusing than I had expected it to be. Oh well, at least the duo provide a lot of information on the production, including the importance of casting the film, how Coscarelli discovered the short story, and how the effects were created.
As usual, Bruce is not afraid to poke fun at some of the cheesier aspects of the story, and Coscarelli seems to be a good sport about this as well. A solid commentary, but I was hoping that it would be a little more entertaining.
Audio Commentary #2
The second of the two included audio commentaries is by “The King” (Bruce Campbell), who talks over the film (from an undisclosed location) as if he was Elvis, and plays it straight for all 92 minutes. Since humor is a completely subjective thing, take this for what it is worth – I thought this was absolutely priceless! Bruce Campbell is a very funny guy, and for me this track was worth the 92-minute investment! On the other hand, I do realize that some people might get bored with this joke after a couple of minutes. If you elect to give it a listen, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
There are a total of 3 deleted scenes, running seven minutes in total, the first two of which feature optional commentary by Bruce Campbell and Don Coscarelli. They are:
On his way to visit Jack, Elvis makes the arduous journey through the halls of the Shady Rest retirement home. Apparently, this was cut for length.
--- “The Lady’s Room”
This scene offers a little more background on the little old lady who can’t keep her hands off of other people’s things. Quite funny, and probably should have been left in the final cut!
--- “Footage From the Temple Room Floor”
The entire Egyptian flashback sequence is offered, and although it is still brief, the viewer gets a better look at Bubba’s beauties!
Bubba Ho-Tep: Short Story Reading
This featurette, which runs for 8-minutes, consists of Joe R. Lansdale reading from Chapter One of his short story Bubba Ho-Tep. In my mind, this neat little extra does two things. First of all, it exemplifies how faithful Coscarelli remained to Lansdale’s story. Secondly, it shows what a twisted, sick individual Joe R. Lansdale is! I love it!!!
In all seriousness though, if his nausea-inducing descriptions and use of profanity doesn’t bother you, consider reading some of Joe’s work. It really is imaginative stuff!
Making Bubba Ho-Tep
Running for about 23-minutes, the “Making Bubba Ho-Tep” featurette gives viewers an inside look at the process of bringing this strange little film to life. During this time, Don Coscarelli talk about the origin of the film, how the film spans several genres, and the efforts Don had to make to get the project of the ground. Subsequently, Ossie Davis and Campbell talked about how they became involved in the project, and the three major action sequences in the film are analyzed. Finally, the reaction to the film after its premiere is briefly discussed.
This “Making Of’ featurette does feel a bit like electronic press kit material, but the fact that this movie was a labor of love for all involved comes through pretty clearly, and it is certainly informative enough to warrant watching it.
To Make A Mummy
The 6-minute “To Make a Mummy” opens with Don Coscarelli goofing around, before getting serious about offering an inside look at how the filmmakers created the ancient mummy on a low budget. Apparently, Coscarelli had to call in several favors, most importantly the one to KNB effects, which created Bob Ivy’s costume. For those interested in these types of things, Bob Kurtzman of KNB then goes into considerable detail on how the costume was created.
Rock Like An Egyptian
This featurette, which runs for 13 minutes, consists of a dialogue between composer Brian Tyler and director Don Coscarelli, who talk about Mr. Tyler’s music and his approach to scoring films. Later, Brian reveals some of the more interesting things he did to give Bubba Ho-Tep’s score a unique sound. Overall, this is a very thoughtful and engaging discussion about how important the relationship between a director and a composer is, and I found it to be well worth the time I spent watching it.
Fit For A King
In this 8-minute featurette, costume designer Shelley Kay talks about the challenge of putting together Bruce Campbell’s wardrobe. There are also some interesting comments by a gentleman from B&K Enterprises, which holds the original patterns of Elvis’ jumpsuits, and from Bruce Campbell, who discusses how his realistic Elvis look was achieved.
Footage from the film is inter-cut with footage of Brian Tyler playing a composition from the film’s soundtrack. Not the most worthwhile of extras, but as a fellow musician, I’ve got to give Brian some props – he is pretty darn good on several instruments!
A nice 10-page booklet is included, offering chapter stops, production photos, and a letter from Bruce Campbell. Nice touch!
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
I am going to keep this brief, as I believe this film speaks volumes all by itself. It is all at once a horror flick, a comedy, and a touching portrait of the sadness and loneliness that accompanies old age sometimes. And yet, at the same time, it is also defies those who would seek to pigeonhole it into one of these categories! Without question, Bubba Ho-Tep is a strange film, and not for everyone. However, if you are in the mood for something different, something inspired, or something plain weird, I urge you to give this movie a look!
Before I check out, I do want to give MGM a for giving this excellent but under-appreciated film a respectful, “Special Edition” treatment on DVD. It is not a two-disc set, but the length of the film and inclusion of only one audio track (and a good one at that) leaves plenty of room for spectacular image quality and a healthy dose of extras, although the main commentary track was a little less than what I hoped for! Given the budget of this film, its strange subject matter, and its extremely limited theatrical release, I was expecting far less from this DVD release. If you were thinking about picking this one up, trust me, your money will be well spent! Highly Recommended!!!