Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Review: "Bubba Ho-tep" (2002)

Bruce Campbell. Either you know him or you don't, and for those who know him (mostly film geeks like me), he is a god. Why? Because through a series of low budget horror and sci-fi films, he has become the action hero that we love to watch. In his biography, "If Chins Could Kill", he comes across as a working-man's actor who has had his shares of highs and lows in the business and has formed a very low tolerance for BS. His personality and charm comes through every role he's ever done, including the despicable ones, and many of his fans would like nothing more than just to sit down and have a beer with the guy.

"Bubba Ho-tep", the latest film to star Campbell, is many things. It's a poignant character study of an elderly Elvis Presley looking back on his life. It's a moving drama about the loneliness and desolation that can pervade over the residents of rest homes. It's a horror film about a mummy who is feeding off the easily available souls of the elderly. And It's a comedy about, among other things, Elvis and his growing friendship with a crazy old black geezer who thinks he's JFK.
None of this will matter for most of the people who see this film (and you know who you are), because they will only be renting that DVD for a 90 minute dose of Bruce. They want to see Bruce Campbell fighting the undead, being attacked by flying POV cameras, and uttering cool catchphrases. They get what they pay for, although Bruce playing an old man doesn't yield as much action as, say, "Army of Darkness".
Instead of non-stop action, there are a lot of quiet meditative scenes and mood setting in this place where people, essentially, go to die. The rest home itself ends up being the spookiest element since the ghoul costume is only adequate and the scuttering scarabs look too rubbery. The director, who's written and directed the "Phantasm" films, uses some quick cut montages when Elvis has a vision or is processing information quickly, which can set you on edge, but it's not enough to sustain tension.
The comedy that is blended with the horror only works half the time. As good as Ossie Davis is as the man who thinks he's JFK, most of his punchlines fall flat. Campbell's interpretation of Elvis, however, is much better. Campbell has taken the concept of an embittered King of Rock and Roll and run with it. His respect for the role has us laughing with Elvis and not at him. What results is an introspective character that, quite frankly, I would have loved to see in a movie without all the silly mummy stuff (I'd also love to see the characters in "From Dusk 'till Dawn" in a separate movie without vampires. So sue me).
I mentioned the whole thing about the loneliness of the elderly and, believe it or not, I think the film works best in this area. Early on in the film, Bull, who is Elvis's roommate, dies. Bull's neglectful daughter makes her first visit to the home since she dropped him. She sorts through his things and throws some of it in the trashcan. Elvis asks if he can keep some of them, so she obligingly digs the items out and hands them to him. One is a Purple Heart and the other a b&w photo of Bull from the war. Elvis lays there and stares at them for a moment. He didn't know him that well, and his daughter is obviously indifferent, so Bull essentially died alone. Kudos go to whoever thought of using a Purple Heart as a symbol of Bull. It completely conveys the richness of human life and how tragic it is that there was no one there to say goodbye.
In the end, this is a movie for Campbell fans. The good news here is that this film is deeper than most of what he's done and, in many ways, more touching than mainstream dramas. Here's to you, Bruce. Keep up the good work.
Seven out of Ten

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