Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shake, rattle and roll against the dying of the light

It’s 2002, and somewhere in Mud Creek, East Texas, in a backwoods nursing home called Shady Rest, a place of long, echoing, ominous corridors and giggly kleptomaniacs, Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) wakes up, and the first thing he sees is an old man violently expiring in the bed next to his. Now Elvis needs a walker to get anywhere and big-ass glasses to see anything. There have been two presidential campaigns since he last had a hard-on, and a tumour has erupted on the end of his penis. He has intoxicating flashbacks of performing under a hail of projectile panties. But is this the real Elvis? The Shady staff seem to think his name is Sebastian Haff (which sounds an awful lot like “Half”). Elvis claims to have swapped places with the real Haff, an Elvis impersonator, at some point in the 1970s, when he was tired of fame and melancholic about his failing marriage. Now admittedly, his story sounds a little fishy—until our Elvis meets another Shady Rest resident, an elderly black man (the late Osssie Davis) who says he’s John F. Kennedy. In this world, fishiness is a matter of degrees. 

And Elvis and JFK aren’t the only people in Bubba Ho-Tep who are supposed to be dead; there’s also a reincarnated Egyptian mummy, with whom our elderly and infirm duo will eventually do battle in a wonderfully anti-climactic climax. I say anticlimactic simply because this comedy with horror trappings only seems like it’s some sort of cheeky, po-mo monster mash-up showdown. The genius of screenwriter/director Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s eponymous novella lies in its use of pop-culture, the absurd and the fantastical to craft a relentlessly inventive fable that could finally be about anyone suffering the anxieties of getting old: the loneliness, the invisibility, the mounting physical ailments, the disintegration of your credibility, the erosion of all your past glories, the depletion of your sex life, and the fear of having your soul slowly sucked out of you, leaving only a tired, wrinkled shell of a human being behind. 

Campbell, beloved star of the Evil Dead films and Army of Darkness, has stated that the script for Bubba Ho-Tep was the weirdest things he’d ever read—and that’s saying something. Indeed, one of the pleasures of experiencing this film, which became an almost instant cult classic upon its debut ten years ago, is simply reeling from the accumulation of batshit plot interjections. In this way Bubba Ho-Tep shares something with the Coen Brothers at their most free-form, ie: The Big Lebowski. Of course, Coscarelli, whose credits include The Beastmaster and the Phantasm series, doesn’t exude anything like the Coens’ high standard of craftsmanship, but I don’t think Bubba would be as charismatic if he did. This film is singularly shaggy and silly in the most inspired sense of the word. It’s a story about facing death with dignity, trying to maintain one’s integrity in the face of time’s potentially humiliating effects, and it’s about good old-fashioned showmanship. Whether our Elvis is the real thing or a fake, he’s convincing in all the important ways. 

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