“The King Hasn’t Left the Building.”
Now, I’m not ashamed to admit when I am not aware of things. There are plenty of books and authors that I have come across due to watching movie versions of their works, and the number is definitely greater than movies that have been made of books I already liked. With this in mind it’s no big surprise that prior to Bubba Ho-Tep being made into a movie, I had zero knowledge of the work of Joe R. Lansdale.
Lansdale had been a published author for twenty years prior to the release of the film adaptation of Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002. Having already written around 20 novels and even more short stories and comics, he had acquired what would be considered a cult following. After Bubba Ho-Tep I considered myself a member in good standing of said cult, and I still do. The first book that I picked up of his was one of his most recent (circa 2004) books of short stories. The collection is called High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale and I would recommend it to anyone that is a fan of short fiction. It’s got something for everyone.
Lansdale has his own unmistakable voice. He’s from east Texas, and although I was born and raised in southeast Tennessee, he speaks the language of this region better than just about anyone. The casual violence and gallows humor in much of his work might shock some people, but if you’re from the southern United States I’m guessing it won’t be much of a surprise to you. Although in Bubba Ho-Tep, the novella and the movie, the humor most certainly steals the show.
“TCB baby…In a Flash!”
For the uninitiated, Bubba Ho-Tep tells the story of Elvis living out his twilight years in a nursing home. You see, Elvis traded his life for the life of an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff. A propane explosion some years earlier had destroyed the only evidence of this so no one believes Elvis’s claims, nor does he have any ability to get what is rightfully his back. Instead he whiles away the hours at the nursing home waxing nostalgic about his glory days and naming the bumps on his pecker Priscilla. Yeah, it’s that kind of story.
The film version of Bubba Ho-Tep is pretty damn faithful to the novella. It hits all the major plot points and makes Elvis, played gloriously by Bruce Campbell, a very sympathetic character. The film also stars Ossie Davis as John F. Kennedy. You see, after the assassination attempt, Lyndon B. Johnson had JFK dyed black and dumped in the nursing home. JFK is Elvis’s closest friend at the home so he plays along with this even though he doesn’t necessarily buy into the story. The pair starts noticing mysterious deaths at the home after Elvis has a run-in with a “big bitch cockroach” (scarab beetle). Eventually, the pair determines that it is an ancient mummy killing the denizens of the nursing home and then using their life-force as an energy supply. The King and JFK can’t stand for this so they decide to take on the mummy, even if it means giving up their own lives in the process.
People have laughed virtually every time I have told them the premise of Bubba Ho-Tep, and in all reality, it is a pretty whacky idea. It is also one of the best meditations on aging I’ve ever had the fortune of watching and reading. It isn’t schmaltzy or weepy at all, but it takes on the inevitable march of time with wit and a strange grace that only the best stories do. Elvis is an old man in body but a young man at heart. He isn’t useless, even though everyone around him (besides JFK) seems to think so and he’s out to prove them wrong. The sequence at the nursing home after Elvis’s roommate dies is heartbreaking and says more about growing old in one scene than most movies can muster in two hours. It might be a movie about a geriatric Elvis and a black JFK fighting a mummy but it deals with weighty issues damn it! Let’s see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter do that.
“The guy that made Phantasm?”
Don Coscarelli, the man behind the Phantasm movies, wrote the screenplay for and directed Bubba Ho-Tep. He would also go on to co-adapt (with Stephen Romano) and direct one of my favorite Lansdale short stories Incident On and Off a Mountain Road for the Showtime series Masters of Horror. On the surface he might seem like a strange choice for the movie due to the fact that the Phantasm movies are played straight for the most part. Upon revisiting the first Phantasm however, it doesn’t seem as strange. There is a certain element of fun and weirdness present in Phantasm that is missing from most of the horror movies that came out around the same time. It certainly has frightening elements, Angus Scrim as the Tall Man is crazy creepy and his murder dwarfs are something to behold, but it has a dreamlike feel that sets it apart from its horror movie ilk. So upon further inspection, it’s hard to think of a better choice for Bubba Ho-Tep.
At the end of the film there is a tag that Elvis will return in Bubba Nosferatu. This was originally put in as a joke (there is no such story by Joe R. Lansdale) but after the movie found a cult audience it was seriously considered for a time. As of this writing however, there seems to be no definitive plan to go forward with it. This is unfortunate due to the fact that Paul Giamatti was in talks to play Colonel Tom Parker. Bruce Campbell as Elvis? Paul Giamatti as Colonel Parker? You couldn’t keep me from the theater if you tried! But alas, this is probably not to be.
Bubba Ho-Tep is one of my favorite movies of the last twenty years and one of my favorite Lansdale stories. You need to run out and get both if you’ve never experienced them. The film is available on DVD and you can get the digital version of the novella for $.99 on Amazon, although I would suggest picking up The Best of Joe R. Lansdale in either paperback or digital. It is a great collection of short stories with a new introduction by the author and is well worth the money. Well what are you waiting for?!? Get to it!