I vote "Bubba Ho-tep" the most imaginatively accessible film of 2003.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
I vote "Bubba Ho-tep" the most imaginatively accessible film of 2003. Elvis living in a nursing home with JFK, transformed into an elderly black rebel, is the embodiment of cultural detritus, a king in exile stripped of his fame and fortune. These 2 icons of the 20th century battle an Egyptian soul-sucking mummy literally for the souls of humanity.
Is it a satire, allegory, or horror flick? It's a little of each and as engaging and witty as could be hoped for in such an eccentric hybrid. Bruce Campbell as Elvis, with just the right lip movements and tone of voice, gives one of the year's best performances, along with "Station Agent's" Peter Dinklage, the dwarf with issues and friends on the fringe. But the real star is the subtext, the nagging feeling that pop culture devours kings and presidents, leaving them either drug-saturated or brain dead from relentless adulation and demand for titillation.
So director/writer Don Coscarelli has a Michael-Jackson-look-alike demon sucking souls from the elderly infirm in order to live another day. That he feeds off the marginal citizens of society adds credence to the belief that pop culture thrives on the uneducated and unsophisticated. Elvis and JFK (Ossie Davis) are here lionized where they were always scrutinized and vilified for their human reaction to fame and power. In effect, a life after pop stardom can prove the merit of the iconic soul where real life heroism proved problematic.
Based on a short story by "mojo storyteller" Joe R. Lansdale of Nacogdoches, Texas, "Bubba Ho-tep" is funny in part because the long-term care facility is so plausibly sterile and vacant of life that the smallest candy bar brings energy heretofore unknown: JFK says, "Let's get decadent" after showing Elvis his horde of Baby Ruth's. That's how excited my mom and her nursing home buddies would have been with such a cache.
This film is weird and intellectually challenging because it demands we look at fame and identity in a jaundiced but humane way, with flourishes of hilarity to soften the inevitable disappointments of after-celebrity life. As Theodor Haecker said, " . . . A man must acquire and possess this fame and then recognize that it is nothing and leaves his soul empty."
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm.