We are what we pretend to be, so be careful what we pretend to be. — Kurt Vonnegut
Fake it ’till you make it — Anonymous
Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of a geriatric Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) trapped in a retirement home after records of his life-swap with an impersonator are destroyed in a barbecue fire. He’s left stuck in the life of a regular joe in a world where nobody believes he’s truly the King, teaming up with a paraplegic, skin-dyed John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) to fight an undead mummy who sucks the souls of the old out of their butts for sustenance.
Talk about a high concept.
At face value, Bubba is a rousing tale that uses the memories of famous figures mourned by our culture to tell an offbeat, comedic horror story. Beneath the surface, it tells an uplifting tale about old men trying to find searching for meaning in their waning days. For Campbell, Bubba remains one of his finest performances. For writer-director Don Coscarelli, Bubba Ho-Tep feels like the clearest of the creative audacity on display in most of his works — including his increasingly low-budget but extremely authentic cult classic Phantasm series. In all of this, Bubba speaks to the way we engage with popular culture — how it fulfills and edifies us beyond simple commercial value.
Elvis spends his days at Shady Oaks making grumpy passes at his nurse and worrying about a growing sore on his impotent penis. The name on the medical-info clipboard attached to the worn metal railings of his bed reads Sebastian Haff, that of a small-time Elvis impersonator in rural Texas. Elvis insists he only took the name Haff to escape the big life and find something more meaningful, but nobody really believes him. Who would? He’s just an old man with a walker, a few heirlooms, a family that doesn’t come to visit and a pustule on his pecker. Like most of his fellow residents, Elvis is just waiting around to die.
Campbell was shoo-in casting for Elvis for most of his career, particularly after 1992’s Army of Darkness, which upped the levels of adoration for the Elvis brand of cool in Campbell’s definitively nerdy-but-heroic Ash Williams character. It only took a decade and a half for someone to cast him in the role. Coscarelli’s work is in the same class of independent horror filmmakers as that from Evil Dead director Sam Raimi and Campbell, and their partnership feels natural in hindsight. (There’s even a brief blink-and-miss-it reference to Raimi in one of the Phantasm films.) What Coscarelli understood about Campbell’s capabilities as a performer comes from someone who knows Campbell personally and watched him grow through the 1980s. Campbell has been routinely cast in comic roles that take advantage of his showmanship and timing; here, Coscarelli taps into his more vulnerable character-actor side, which feels counterintuitive to making good on Campbell’s iconic delivery of “Hail to the king, baby” after blowing away Deadites for so many years.
Instead, we have a certifiably cantankerous old man who may not even be Elvis if we’re speaking the truth. His story — that he traded lives with Haff and the proof was destroyed in a mundane incident involving too much propane on a grill — certainly seems absurd enough to have an element of truth to it. And yet. There’s so much sadness to him, the feeling of a life wasted away. His nostalgia and regret play just as sympathetically whether he’s Elvis or simply a Haff who has convinced himself as such to feel important again. Despite the accent and the comedy, Campbell digs into the character and is a large part of why the film succeeds at being both a fun genre piece and something more.
At the start of the story, Elvis’s roommate passes away. When the man’s estranged daughter arrives to pick up his things, Elvis asks her why she never visited. It’s a terse exchange, the daughter explaining that their relationship was never great. She lets Elvis keep her father’s old Purple Heart, a record of accomplishment now rendered meaningless by a family that doesn’t honor it. Beyond the medal and the daughter’s coarseness, there’s nothing to indicate who Elvis’s roommate was. Elvis resents the daughter for this and for thinking his age and physical condition make him entirely harmless to the point in which she barely registers his presence. “Get old, you can’t even cuss someone out and have it bother them. Everything you do is either worthless or sadly amusing.”
There’s plenty of real-world cultural statistics to cite about American treatment of the elderly, who — as a major voting bloc — have access to some of our best social programs but continue to be treated poorly by the culture at large. This isn’t an essay about those issues, but I think we all know they exist. A fifth of Social Security recipients rely on the benefit for their full income. Nursing homes are becoming increasingly big business, and as such nursing home abuse is a big story. Chronic depression is experienced at higher rates by elderly populations as chronic illnesses develop and losses mount.
Families still split into nuclear units, and the economic reality of the American system makes it difficult for such things to change in many communities and subcultures. Plus, Republicans more or less think the elderly should be prepared to die from a pandemic that disproportionately impacts them because “they’re close to death anyway.” So … not a good situation for older folks, culturally or politically. Or personally. I can’t really visit those whom I care about very often because of this damn plague.
Bubba isn’t a message film about aging in general, but it touches on those issues while telling a story specifically about the anxieties of aging men. Both Campbell and Coscarelli were in their 50s and facing a professional sea change, as their careers were taking them in new directions after a string of early successes in the 1980s and 1990s. This was a good half-decade before Campbell landed a string of great television roles (including a return of his Ash character) and Coscarelli took on a few smaller-profile projects. Elvis’s character is bolstered by the honesty of two creative minds working from an authentic perspective.
That honesty helps Bubba avoid becoming lecherous or self-serving. There are plenty of movies about men finding new meaning, be it through sexual or social conquests they didn’t believe themselves capable of achieving. A renewal of youth, essentially. Or an atonement for youthful mistakes. That setup provides a story engine for plenty of dramatic genres. Bubba, to its advantage, never makes Elvis young again. He’s an old man, warts and all. He lives in a retirement community where new friends fade away and old friends never visit. He’s depressed. His memories are all he has — images of the King, a vision of what it meant to be young and virile. Whether he’s actually Elvis or Haff, his tale is that of an old man embracing a new self while on his way out the door.
Let’s talk about Phantasm for a bit. One of the benefits of watching a decades-long franchise built by a handful of artists in a short frame of time is watching recurring motifs change to accommodate new creative circumstances, ideas and experiences. Coscarelli’s Phantasm series is unique amongst the other long-running indie-horror franchises that came out of the 1970s in that it has always been a family affair. Unlike Halloween or Friday the 13th or Nightmare or Hellraiser, all of which belong to producers and production companies that pump out product for a profit motive, the Phantasm quintet — Phantasm, Phantasm 2, Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead, Phantasm: OblIVion and Phantasm: RaVager — are mostly directed by Coscarelli and star Angus Scrimm as the villainous Tall Man, Reggie Bannister as former ice cream salesman Reggie, and A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury as brothers Mike and Jody Pearson. What started as a simple phantasmagorical low-budget horror story about a mysterious tall man from hell making demon midgets out of exhumed corpses slowly morphs into a micro-budget odyssey about death, aging and self-determination. There is no theatrical or on-demand audience for the Phantasm series despite its brain-sucking chrome orbs being somewhat iconic (and inspiring the name of a Star Wars character in the recent sequel trilogy). It’s a series that exists solely because the creatives involved wished it to exist.
The first Phantasm (1979) is certainly the best of them, introducing the nature of Coscarelli’s nightmare approach to cinematic reality. It’s more visually complex than The Evil Dead or Halloween, which settled on monsters or demons haunting simple, recognizable locations. Coscarelli was inspired by the creepiness of mausoleums. As such, even while budgets wilted as the series progressed, everything always came back to rows of the dead encased in marble. It introduces the Pearson brothers as well as the Tall Man and, most importantly, Reggie, whose overall character arc is what fascinated me the most in relation to Coscarelli’s oeuvre and Bubba.
Phantasm II (1988) is oriented as an action-adventure, funded by Universal on the back of other successful horror sequels. Reggie’s iconic-to-a-dozen-people quadruple-barreled shotgun feels like a direct attempt at making something as memorable as Ash’s chainsaw hand or Jason’s machete. Reggie, too, boasts even more braggadocio and confidence as an already middle-aged clone of Ash, his cousin from another series. Phantasm III (1994) more ambitious than II, but a lesser achievement. The Oblivion (1998) and Ravager (2016) installments both suffer from budget cuts and both of them mix new material with archival footage and obvious green-screen moments. Gone, by those installments, are the beautiful on-location mausoleums. However, these two trade action and horror for more low-key character work, delving into the never-ending battle between the Tall Man, Reggie and Mike as the latter two slowly become too old to be as effective in fighting the Tall Man as they once were.
The worship and perversion of death is Coscarelli’s central concern in all of the Phantasm movies as well as the reason they endure and, despite any flaws, function well as a series of five films. There are certainly graphic bits of gore, violence and adventure, but those are not, ultimately, the heart of the series. We all grow old. We all die. Sometimes death coming for us is all there is. Sometimes even bleaker fates await us even on the other side. As those pressures mount and time passes, the relationship between the reality we exist in and the reality we choose to accept begin to blur. How do we keep our bearings as our senses fail and we’re surrounded by a disorienting amalgam of the real and the unreal?
Bubba Ho-Tep came about between Oblivion and Ravager, and contains clear thematic echoes with those two installments of the Phantasm franchise. Ravager, in particular, feels inspired by the development of Coscarelli’s thematic interests while working on the Bubba script. In Ravager, Reggie is split between a hospital bed where nobody believes his experiences and a post-apocalyptic war zone where the Tall Man’s full force of intergalactic evil has invaded the Earth. There’s certainly an escalation of scale on display despite the lowest budget for a Phantasm yet, but what drives that final, heart-wrenching piece of homemade horror is the question of whether Reggie, our hero for five movies, was only imagining his heroism. It’s the same question asked of Elvis in Bubba Ho-Tep. Are these old men just making up their heroic endeavors, imagining better lives for themselves than the ones they lived? Ravager, like Bubba, has it both ways. In doing so, they each speak to a more interesting, unifying principle within Coscarelli’s lo-fi horror-comedy creations.
In Bubba Ho-Tep, Elvis is an old man who may or may not be his generation’s most famous rock star, a personality who essentially became a god to his generation. His premature death traumatized them. Supermarket-checkout tabloids thrived on the notion for the entirety of the 1980s and beyond. Regardless of who Presley was in reality, his legend as Elvis lived on. Bubba Ho-Tep embraces the nature that tabloid therapy tapped into for decades. What if Elvis had lived – in this case, had become an old retired man in rural Texas, teaming up with JFK to fight a mummy?
It pokes fun at the idea of Elvis living on while still honoring the reason why such a postulation was so popular. amongst his fans and admirers. Elvis seemed like an eternal being, so much larger than life, for whom death came impossibly early. Even younger audiences who grew up generations removed from Elvis Presley have some inkling of his importance.
Sebastian Haff, if indeed not the King he claims to be, is no less interesting or sympathetic a character. Who doesn’t want to paper over their own flawed selves with someone more interesting? And if you’re going to decide to be anyone — anyone — why not Elvis? It’s more than committing to a bit for Haff. It’s becoming someone else, a persona that means so much to him that he can feel meaningful again. His strained relationship with his wife and children becomes much more interesting if he tells himself they’re not visiting because his existence is a secret. Assuming Elvis’s life also redeems the loss of a man he dearly loved, whose death may have traumatized him and shaken the foundations of his life as an impersonator.
Like Coscarelli’s treatises on age and death in his Phantasm films, Bubba depicts a man stuck between the reality he creates for himself and the world around him. Is this and adventure about Elvis and JFK fighting a mummy, or the heartwarming tale of two are simply delusional old men fighting a mummy?
Leaving both options on the table for audiences to decide enhances the fairy tale being told. We create our own realities, not necessarily always by conscious choice. When we do, though, our choices are informed by the values we’ve developed amongst friends and families and the stories we share with them. Popular culture – musicians, movies, comics, stars, cults – it’s all there, for better or worse. In this case irrelevant whether Elvis is Elvis or Haff, because in the end we can empathize with Elvis or the way Elvis’ memory is a guidepost for Haff as he nears death. These feelings combine to make Bubba a stronger statement on the power of these stories and their significance to our lives. All that matters is that Elvis, one way or another, is there at the end of the line — taking care of business.
Thinking about Bubba Ho-Tep and its sardonic-but-loving approach to popular culture — and how we can define ourselves — led me to contemplate the essay that started this year’s No Sleep October series. I wrote about the Japanese apocalypse film Prophecies of Nostradamus, which I first read about in an e-book I read while researching for my Are You There Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan sequence. “2020 sucks,” I wrote “It’s hard to argue otherwise.” I questioned the purpose of watching horror in a time where real life felt terrible. The answer I came to was that there was some element of catharsis to be had, seeing the worst possible outcomes and still finding some joy regardless. After all, you don’t gain anything by sitting back and waiting for the end.
It’s made me reflect on how No Sleep October started in 2013, about a year into my film-criticism career, because I was pretty much a horror novice. We still publish a slightly edited version of the premise at the top of each essay, but it’s not really accurate anymore. We’re in the sixth year of this column and the third year of it being a massive group commentary project. It is our website’s flagship commentary. I have seen pretty much every major horror movie I can think of and watch more every year. (They still scare me.)
I’ve also helped curate horror programming slates for Heartland Film Festival and Indy Shorts; I’ve helped curate our Fuck, Yeah Film Festival! Horror edition for five years; I’ve appeared on multiple podcasts to talk horror films, including one that found me at random because of my minority-opinion love for the film Trick.
When I asked that question earlier this month — why horror? — I should have thought harder. And after a month of thinking about it — and another 10,000 words of essays under my own belt and nearly 20 more from others in this series alone — I have a few answers.
I can say it’s visceral, simple-stakes storytelling that lets us experience a broad range of stories.
I can argue that horror lets us visit stories that reflect our darkest selves, like in The Mist or Day of the Dead or Sleepwalkers or The Handmaid’s Tale, to think about where we are in the real world now and what we can do to fix it.
I can point to Lou Harry’s essays on different versions of Frankenstein (Universal and Alternatives), which mix his keen criticism with stories about his lifelong love of these films and how he found them.
I can argue that breadth of potential allows for really personal stories to be told over time as iconic characters meet new eras and creative tastes, like in the Halloween and Phantasm series, in a way other genres have rarely managed.
Richard Propes has remarked that he always goes dark when he writes for No Sleep October, but maybe that’s something special about horror: The subject matter allows for filmmakers to tap into stories and experiences that other, more commercially concerned endeavors avoid. His essay on I Spit on Your Grave this year is incredible; check out his essays on Pop Skull and Hellroller, too.
Maybe I just like watching movies with plenty of sex, gore and cool characters talking like they walked out of a 15-year-old’s idea of a badass like Creighton Duke in Jason Goes to Hell. Maybe it’s fun to sit back and look at some really wild shit, as Nick Rogers discussed in his essay on The Beyond a few years back. We’ve had dozens of contributors over the years, some returning but others writing just one essay on a film that inspired them. It blows my mind.
When No Sleep October started, I wouldn’t have called myself a horror guy. I still don’t know if that label really fits. Or if I have a choice.
Bubba Ho-Tep‘s ode to the the way stories shape us answered my question for me. Horror has let me connect with so many new friends. It means so much to me that we’re able to bring writers together each year to express our love of the genre as a platform to tell the stories of our lives, our interests and our anxieties. It’s communication via shared interest. It is cathartic to write through the lens of these stories, in this shared space. In this “Horror Guy” costume that has become my skin. Even as the world feels like it’s dying alone in a rural Texas retirement home with a pus-spewing dick growth, at least we share a passion for these stories to keep us together.