Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Film Review - 'Bubba Ho-tep'

Alright, stop me if you've heard this one, before.

Two men living out the last days of their lives in a decrepit retirement home somewhere in Texas come face-to-face with an ancient Egyptian curse, in the form of a stolen sarcophagus and the mummified corpse that it contains. The mummy rises from the dead (as mummies often seem to do), and set about terrorising the elderly residents of these run-down retirement him - consuming their soles in order to sustain itself. As their friends begin to die around them, these two realise that that they are the only ones willing to believe that there is anything sinister going on. So, it falls to them, along, to confront this evil creature, and destroy it.

Also, one of these men may actually be Elvis Presley, while the other is an African American man convinced that he is actually former United States President, John F. Kennedy.

Elvis (Bruce Campbell), we are told, found himself in this unenviable position due to the fact that, years earlier, he had made arrangements to temporarily swap places with the best Elvis impersonator he could find (also Bruce Campbell) - giving the impersonator the chance to truly be 'the King' for a while, and allowing the 'real' Elvis Presley to enjoy some time free from fame and instant recognition.

The deal was intended to be a 'win' for both parties, obviously. It even included a way in which Elvis could continue to perform, if the mood every struck - since he could always take on the role of an impersonator, himself. Things were going well for Elvis, until an accidental fire destroyed any documentation he could have used to prove his true identity, and return to his old life. Then, misfortune struck once more, when an accident on stage left him with a broken hip. Unable to prove his true identity, or to perform, Elvis eventually found his way to that run-down retirement home (as for the impersonator - well, things didn't go so well for him, either).

'JFK' (Ossie Davis), meanwhile, is utterly convinced that he is the victim of a vast conspiracy - one in which he survived the assassination attempt, only for the CIA to have his skin dyed black before being dumped and abandoned.

It shouldn't need to be said that neither the staff, or the other residents, of this retirement home truly believe that either of these men is who they claim to be. The two long-time friends don't even seem entirely convinced that they believe each other.
Given the sheer absurdity of this film's basic premise, it might seem fair to wonder if the entire basis of Bubba Ho-tep would be a one-note joke that would get old well before the end credits rolled - and, to be far, it could very easily have turned out that way.

As odd as it may sound, though, the film also manages to be much more than that simple joke. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis each display an admirable willingness to take the outright absurdity on offer, here, and simply run with it. Both actors prove to be entirely committed to playing their roles absolutely straight - and this, more than anything, works to raise the film above what it could have been. Carried by these lead performances, as it is, the film manages to achieve an odd note of very genuine melancholy alongside the absurd humour, and the cheerfully cheap production values. It's never played so strongly that it risks ruining the fun of the film, but there is still a very genuine thread of sombre sobriety woven through this film - touching, as it does, on the feelings of sadness and helplessness that can come when you feel that the best years of your life are behind you.

Unfortunately, while the entertaining rapport that develops between the film's eccentric leads is easily enough to carry the film, early on, things do start to become increasingly strained as the film moves toward its half-way mark, and beyond. Ultimately, it's the film's 'horror' aspect that proves to be its weakest element - with the film seeming to lose some of its natural charm whenever the focus is placed firmly on the undead creature.

On the surface, Bubba Ho-tep is really just a straight-forward attempt to blend 'horror' with 'comedy' - a combination that has been done, and done well, many times before. Here, though, a combination of the film's absurd premise and its low production values meant that Bubba Ho-tep was a film that was, quite simply, never going to be particularly frightening. Worse that that, though, the overall pacing of the film seems to suffer as the focus is shifted - leading to a second-half that seems to flounder, somewhat.

Also, while this may just be a matter of personal preference, even the humour of the film seems to suffer, somewhat, whenever the focus is placed on that ancient Egyptian curse. Why, for example, was it necessary for the mummy to steal its victims souls through their ass-holes? What did that little detail actually add to the film? It felt a wholly unnecessary attempt at vulgarity in a film which didn't really need it - and, I'm saying that with full knowledge that the film practically opens with Elvis discussing the strange growth on his penis. One example struck me as an amusingly crude little details that still managed to add to the way in which Elvis Presley was characterised, in the film - and, the other struck me as being little more than vulgarity for its own sake. But, as I said, that's just personal preference.

Those issues aside, though, Bubba Ho-tep is still a very entertaining film. For the first half, or so, it is a film which offers an experience that manages to be both funny, and kind of sad. It's really just a shame that the film's 'horror' element really only serves to undermine that wonderful balance that is achieved in that first half.

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