Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

*. It should be clear from my notes on these things that I don’t think there have been many decent mummy movies.
*. There have been a couple of classic treatments that I’d rate as just OK: the initial 1932 Boris Karloff offering and the 1959 Hammer version with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. And then there are two very different films that I still really enjoy: the big-budget 1999 rollercoaster ride starring Brendan Fraser and the low-budget horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep.
*. Purists may want to argue that these last two aren’t “real” mummy movies but I think they fit the bill just fine. They mix in a lot of other stuff with the genre but the basic rules are the same. Bubba Ho-Tep, for example, isn’t just some zombie or vampire. He has personality: dressing up like a cowboy, scribbling graffiti on the walls of the bathroom stall, and cursing a mean streak in hieroglyphics. And the fact that he stays alive by sucking the souls of his victims out from their assholes actually makes as much sense as the business with tana leaves. The soul-eating and -shitting business here is crazy, but has its own coherence, which is more than such mumbo-jumbo often has.
*. As (relatively) colourful a figure as Bubba Ho-Tep is, however, he’s a shadow of the two main characters: a man who thinks he’s Elvis Presley (Bruce Campell) and another who think he’s JFK (Ossie Davis). They both live in a Texas nursing home that the mummy has made his personal happy-hunting ground. So there are three legendary figures whose lives, or afterlives, are coming together at once.

*. There are two fortunate consequences of such a bizarre premise. In the first place, it helps deal with a perennial problem mummy movies have that director Don Coscarelli mentions in his commentary. Mummies don’t move that fast, which leaves their victims all too often frozen in terror or screaming and fainting while their fate slowly shuffles toward them. In this case, however, the victims can’t run away because they can’t run. Not that they are shrinking violets anyway. Most of them do want to put up a fight. It’s just that they don’t have enough juice left in their tanks.
*. The second thing I’d note is the neat way the plot reverts the traditional type of story where children become aware of monsters but the adults don’t believe them. In this case it’s the old folks who see the mummy but everybody at the home thinks they’re suffering from dementia. After all, these are guys who think they’re Elvis and JFK. They obviously have rich, childlike imaginary lives.
*. The whole thing was shot on a budget of just over $500,000, which is remarkable. What makes it work is the script, based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale, some great performances (not just Campbell and Davis, but Ella Joyce as well), and Coscarelli’s restraint in not rushing the story. Coscarelli took his time with a shooting schedule of a month on this one, and that’s something that’s reflected in the pace here and the attention to detail. This isn’t a horror movie for teens but one that enjoys the pleasure of good conversation without the interruptions of jump scares.
*. I don’t care for the ending much, which seems awkwardly and almost mawkishly sentimental. Out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the picture anyway. Apparently initial audiences didn’t like the scene where Campbell snaps at Ella Joyce’s nurse, but for me it worked. It grounded Campbell’s character in real emotions and a real situation, which is what I think the story needed.
*. Still, to borrow an image from that ending, the stars were in alignment here. It took someone like Coscarelli and the creative freedom of an independent production to make a movie like this, and through sheer professionalism it all works. Over the years there’s been much talk of a sequel but nothing has materialized. I think that tells you something about just how hard it is to make a good little movie. Much harder than to make a bad big one anyway.

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