“Elvis dreamed he had his dick out, checking to see if the bump on the head of it had filled with pus again. If it had, he was going to name the bump Priscilla, after his ex-wife, and bust it by jacking off. Or he’d like to think that’s what he’d do. Dreams let you think like that. The truth was, he hadn’t had a hard-on in years.”
With these unforgettable words, Joe R. Lansdale (author of Mucho Mojo, The Bottoms, and the best goddamn run of Jonah Hex comics in existence) ushers the reader into “Bubba Ho-Tep,” his contribution to the anthology, The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-Mortem, exploring the tabloid-rag notion that Elvis didn’t die on the crapper August 16th, 1977, but lived on, tired of the fame and the drugs, now as secretive in existence as Sasquatch or Nessie.
While I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of The King is Dead, I do have “Bubba Ho-Tep” in my copy of The Best of Joe R. Lansdale, and let me tell you something, brothers and sisters of the Psychotronic World, it will blow your mind clean out your ears. Without a doubt the most ferociously original piece of fiction I’ve read in a loooooong time, “Bubba Ho-Tep” finds Elvis Aron Presley alive — though barely — in the Shady Rest Convalescence Home in Mud Creek, Texas. I.e., the far side of nowhere, under the name “Sebastian Haff,” an Elvis Impersonator he switched places with in the 1970s. Withered, sickly, missing teeth and a fair amount of hair, Elvis’ existence has boiled down to waiting for his next meal (“and considering what they serve, why did he care?”), voiding his bowels in bed (all too rarely does he find the energy to hobble to the bathroom), wondering what the growth on his pecker is, and most importantly, asking the big questions: “Why hadn’t fame denied old age and death, and why had he left his fame in the first place, and did he want it back, and could he have it back, and if he could, would it make any difference?”
While most examinations of the story (or, more commonly, the film adapted from it, which I will get to presently) focus on the fact that it’s about Elvis Presley, a black man who may or may not be Jack Kennedy post-“mortem,” and a soul-swallowing Egyptian mummy in cowboy duds, I cannot in good conscience sit here and say that that’s what “Bubba Ho-Tep” is about.
“Bubba Ho-Tep”, as I see it, is a reflection on the inevitability of mortality, as we see even that Virile King of Men, Elvis Presley, succumb to the decaying ravage of age; too tired to do anything but soil himself, passed over by the world, waiting to die. The immediate world around him — the Shady Rest Convalescence Home — is practically a necropolis; he lies surrounded by the sick and dying elderly (after that first paragraph, the story opens with Elvis’ roommate dying of cancer), occasionally tended to by youthful, condescending caretakers. The wider world around him is one to whom the elderly hold no value; no longer are the elders seen as sources of wisdom, now they’re just so much refuse. What’s left for an old man in a young man’s world? Does anything really matter? These are questions Elvis struggles with on a daily basis.
And don’t get me wrong, this is a story that deals with an aging, cantankerous Elvis teaming up with a black man who may or may not actually be John F. Kennedy (part of whose brain is allegedly in a jar in Washington, hooked up to a car battery, while the space it once filled in his cranium now contains a bag of sand) in order to save their rest home from a nightmarish soul-swallowing mummy that has made his lair in the gardener’s shed. But the King, JFK, and Bubba Ho-Tep himself are just so much set dressing for the deeper philosophical entreaties concealed within ruminations on the King’s diet, bowel movements, and erections. “Food, Shit and Sex,” as Lansdale puts it.
In 2002, something magical happened. Don “PHANTASM” Coscarelli came across “Bubba Ho-Tep,” and getting in touch with Joe Lansdale, somehow managed to get the funding to turn this strange little novella — this philosophical pondering of food, shit and sex, coated in rhinestones and stinking of the grave — into a full-length feature film. Starring Bruce “THE EVIL DEAD” Campbell as Elvis Presley (and the legitimate Sebastian Haff in a flashback) and the late Ossie “COTTON COMES TO HARLEM” Davis as Jack Kennedy, the film BUBBA HO-TEP is an absolute joy to behold. While Bruce’s Elvis impression is a little shaky (something he has freely admitted), everyone is perfectly cast, from the curmudgeonly, candy-stealing old woman to the sassy, condescending nurse who puts a salve on Elvis’ infected pecker every day. The Shady Rest Convalescence Home is perfectly disquieting — while seemingly normal, there is a griminess, a sense of neglect, despair, and decay. This is not a place where your loved ones will be treated with dignity and respect; and perhaps it’s not a place anyone willingly chooses to take their loved ones.
While Coscarelli is almost perfectly faithful to the text of the novella (some of Elvis’ inner musings match Lansdale’s prose word for word), he nevertheless has added his own touches, which only accentuate and enhance the story — the candy-stealing old bag, for instance, who gets hers in the form of a giant, malevolent scarab beetle; or the two gallows-humor morticians who arrive to take each new corpse away, with increasingly humorous effect — from spraying corpses with air freshener to fumbling them into bushes, they’re a pair you wouldn’t want carting off the remains of your own loved ones, but on screen you can’t help but smile at their antics.
In both prose and cinematic formats, “Bubba Ho-Tep” is an astonishingly good time. Joe R. Lansdale is my favorite living author, and has been ever since I discovered him through his collaboration with Edgar Rice Burroughs (posthumously, on Burroughs’ part), “Tarzan: The Lost Adventure.” Lansdale’s prose has a natural rhythm and vitality that sends the reader’s imagination whipping across the Texas landscape and into the Wild Unknown, wherever Lansdale may choose to take you. His dialogue never stilts, and everything he’s ever written has left me thinking about it for hours or days to follow.
In tallying the films I’ve watched the most, BUBBA HO-TEP is up there with THE THING, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, and THE EVIL DEAD. Everyone I’ve screened it for has been left dumbfounded that such a thing could exist, and astonished at it’s depth and wit. I’d rank Bruce Campbell’s performance as Elvis as one of the best he’s ever given, and the strong reliance on practical special effects warms my nerdy heart. Absolutely worth seeing.
Tags: Bruce Campbell, Bubba Ho Tep, cowboy, Don Coscarelli, food, Horror, Horror Movie, horror-comedy, Indie, Joe R. Lansdale, Movie Reviews, mummy, old people, Ossie Davis, Phantasm, Sex, shit, soul stealing, The Evil Dead