The strange thing about the horror genre is that it’s not only a genre within itself, it is also a modifier to other genres. With maybe the exception of sci-fi, no other genre is slammed within the context of a seemingly unrelated genre. A perfect instance of this is “horror-comedy”. On the surface, the two genres are worlds apart, both in tone and in actual content. Beyond that surface, though, horror-comedies can be amazing little nuggets of sub-genre. Today’s Netflix instant pick is a standout example of that. I bring you Bubba Ho-Tep, written and directed by Don Coscarelli.
Bubba Ho-Tep tells the story of an aged Elvis Presley(Bruce Campbell) who, despite popular belief, is alive and well, residing in a Texas retirement home. He finds an unlikely bond with a fellow resident, John F. Kennedy(Ossie Davis), who is also alive and now a black man. Now take that idea and add in an Egyptian mummy who is preying on the souls of retirement home residents. That set-up obviously leads to a showdown between a mummy and the duo of Elvis and JFK. If that plot doesn’t appeal to you, I think you should probably reevaluate some things.
Considering the high concept plot, the most surprising thing about Bubba Ho-Tep is that it is kept afloat by character work and a bit of subtlety. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis both give hilarious and, when necessary, touching performances. It’s not that the movie avoids humor, it revels in it really. But it is also not afraid to let the characters stew a little. They are facing mortality in a much more immediate way than most of us, and the script takes the time to explore that. That kind of character development is pretty rare in a horror movie, let alone a horror-comedy.
Now, I don’t want to make the movie seem heavier than it is. It is not a dry character study of death, it is a ridiculous and hilarious movie about Elvis fighting a mummy. The makers never forget that base, but they do have the wisdom to let the characters thrive in the story, becoming far more than just caricatures. This extra touch of dimensionality to the story is most likely what makes the majority of the humor work. We believe that Elvis and JFK are battling a mummy. I mean, why wouldn’t they?
Another aspect that was obviously extremely important to the makers of Bubba Ho-Tep was production value. This is not your standard straight to DVD release. Don Coscarelli knows how to shoot a scene and he takes his time making sure every shot of this movie is well composed and portrays exactly what is intended. Arguably, what horror movies need more of than anything else is talented directors. There are far too many production line, cookie cutter horror movies that are either boring or cliche, or both. Don Coscarelli is neither of these things, and Bubba Ho-Tep is better for it.
If you haven’t gotten the general gist, Bubba Ho-Tep is an all around, pretty fantastic movie. It balances character development, horror, and comedy with an admiral, fast paced tightrope walk that will leave the audience loving Elvis and JFK as much as any cinematic duo in the last twenty years. Or just watch it to hear Ossie Davis say “The Pharaoh gobbles donkey goobers”.