Bubba Ho-tep: Special Edition Review

“I was dreamin'. Dreamin' my dick was out and I was checkin' to see if that infected bump on the head of it had filled with pus again. If it had, I was gonna name it after my ex-wife Priscilla and bust it by jackin' off. Or I'd like to think that's what I'd do. Dreams let you think like that. Truth was, I hadn't had a hard-on in years...”

-- Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell)

Is this really the fate that befell Mr. Presley? According to the crazed story of Bubba Ho-tep, “The King” isn’t dead; he's an elderly resident in an East Texas rest home. Bored with the rock n’ roll lifestyle all those years ago, he switched identities with Sebastian Haff (also Campbell), a popular impersonator. However, he never got a chance to switch back, and wound up in a retirement home (with a pretty nasty growth on his pecker). However, his quiet life is soon shattered, when a supernatural force begins preying on those around him. Elvis has to team up with Jack (the late Ossie Davis), a black man who believes he is John F. Kennedy. Together, they’ll battle the evil Egyptian entity Ho-tep (Bob Ivy), who has chosen their long-term care facility as his hunting grounds...will our hero be “all shook up”, or determined to fight?

I bumped into an Elvis impersonator once, and wasn’t very impressed. Truth be told, I’ve never had a desire to buy a Presley CD, and chances are, I won’t anytime soon. Yet, people continue to make money from his legacy. Love 'em or hate 'em, impersonators exist purely to spread the music of the one they call "The King". A cultural phenomenon, there is no denying that Mr. Presley is the kind of guy we all want to be. Cool, slick, adored by women...he was a man's man. But, we can dream about those golden times another day. For Campbell - forever shadowed by his zombie slashing days - has become Elvis for a new generation. He's put down the chainsaw in favour of flared trousers and inch-thick shades. Becoming an icon for a film role would be no easy task, but The Evil Dead’s hero fills those boots with eerie precision, raising Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-tep from a cult opus to a cinematic wonder.

Barely released theatrically (a crime of epic proportions), word of Bubba Ho-tep has spread like wild fire across America and the UK. Yet, despite its healthy praise, the film has averted the mainstream spotlight it so rightly deserves. Coscarelli is no stranger to this land of cult banishment. The classic horror picture Phantasm is his only claim to fame, a film that took forever to find recognition on video. So too, is the case with his little-seen flick The Beastmaster; a picture that failed to leave an impression. It must have been a struggle to secure the little financing that went into Ho-tep. But the time, effort and money paid off, since the praise you've heard about the film is no doubt true - Coscarelli’s picture is fiercely intelligent, funny, touching, and original in ways I thought cinema had left behind. Like its predecessors, it isn't without its flaws, but when a motion picture comes along that strives to be different, you have to stand up and applaud its noble intentions. And many people have.

Relentlessly quirky, Coscarelli's film is a constant juggling act of genres; a trait found in the original short story by Joe R. Lansdale. If it had been a mainstream release, I doubt it would have covered so many bases. The film is part horror, part drama, part comedy, and would you believe it, partly existential too. Strangely, it all seems to work; gelling together through the director's sure-handedness, and the cast's affection for their roles. Though the film is never scary. It is a morbid and dark film rather than a fright workout, so those expecting chills may be looking in the wrong place. Yet, it’s clearly Coscarelli's finest achievement. Perhaps it's his age and experience in the exploitation field that has sparked this surge of originality. Whatever the reason, audiences will be able to draw similarities with the filmmaker and Ho-tep's ageing Elvis. He has been working on the fringes of Hollywood his whole life, and this was Coscarelli’s chance to break into a more-stable career. While that has failed to transpire, it has provided him with an overwhelming critical response that evaded his work in the past.

Thankfully, he manages to rise above the minuscule budget, and Bubba remains his most stylish effort yet. The film looks better than it probably should, thanks to cinematographer Adam Janeiro, who gives the rest home a grim, weathered look. It’s put to best use in the scenes with Ho-tep (of which there are few), which are pleasantly dark and creepy. The moment he strolls down the hallway in front of a terrified Elvis and Jack, with the light flickering and distorting around him, is priceless. The director uses an array of stylish scene transitions (mostly during the many flashbacks), and composes his shots with care. Yet, the budgetary restraints do reveal some problems. The pacing is sluggish to say the least, with most of the film taking great time to establish its characters, with very little action. This wasn’t a problem for me, but some will be disappointed by the films stripped-down nature. Elsewhere, the effects can cause laughter - both intended and otherwise - with the KNB boys giving Ho-tep a goofy look. He fits the ridiculous style of the film well (and Ivy’s movement is great), yet I had to raise my eyebrow at those Scarab beetles, which look decidedly fake.

But these flaws don’t detract from one’s enjoyment, thanks to a dynamite cast. The ensemble here puts many Hollywood productions to shame, since there is no weak link to be found...anywhere. They all treat the material with great enthusiasm, and leap into their roles with gusto. Among them, is Ella Joyce as one of the rest home’s long-suffering nurses, and Coscarelli-regular Reggie Bannister, as a disgruntled administrator. While Campbell gets most of the press, no one should forget Ossie Davis, who died a few months ago. His turn as Jack is equally-electric, and sublime from his opening scene onward. Davis had a gift for conveying a sense of authenticity, and he convinces the audience that Jack really has gone off the deep end, and believes everything he says. He also adds to the films surprisingly poignant core. Talk about an epitaph...

Davis aside, the film rests solely on the shoulders of Campbell, who possesses the screen with his knack for visual comedy. His delivery of Coscarelli’s script is pitch-perfect, and it’s clear from every move or gesture, that Campbell is a talented thesp, who has more to his range than dispatching Deadites, or using Boomsticks. The box art proclaims it to be a “mind-blowing performance from Campbell”, but I won’t use such overblown hyperbole. That said, it’s a damn fine portrayal of Elvis (one of the grooviest), and it’s doubtful that Campbell will ever better his work here. His fan-base is correct - ‘ol Brucie brings the film to life...

People looking for mainstream-type fare will no doubt hate Bubba Ho-tep, since it strives to be “different”. To me, that’s a recommendation in itself, and I really don’t know how to classify Coscarelli’s modern classic. Yet, rub away the monster plot, and the kooky atmosphere, and the inner-meaning becomes clear. Coscarelli is painting a bittersweet picture about death, and how it’s best to end our lives without regret. The fact that the film ends on such a final note is a gutsy one, leaving the audience to question their own potential. This life-affirming message, and 88 minutes of sublime entertainment, make this a must-see for cult enthusiasts everywhere. Bring on Bubba Nosferatu!

The Discs

After granting the film a limited theatrical release, the genre-loving folk at Anchor Bay have treated Bubba Ho-tep to an excellent “Special Edition”. It continues their high standard, yet only the die-hard fans will want to double-dip, since the new material is slim. Despite this, AB's presentation and attention to detail makes it the clear winner for those new to the film. In other words, it’s just what “The King” ordered...

The Look and Sound

MGM defied expectations with their release, which was pretty swell in the technical department. The Bay have merely used the same transfer, which was probably wise. Bubba Ho-Tep looks pretty good here, belying its roots as an independent curiosity piece. The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) print has plenty to commend. The blacks are rock solid, and the colours are reasonably attractive (though occasionally dull). A sharp image overall, but the technical limitations of the production creep in here and there - a number of shots lack definition, and there are specks and heavy grain on the image. That said, the transfer is detailed, and always pleasing to the eye.

As ever, AB give us a whole host of audio options. We get the old Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, alongside optional DTS and standard 2.0 Stereo. The new tracks are great, yet offer little that’s new to the viewing experience. Therefore, the 5.1 option is still recommended. Coscarelli and his team had a real field day here, since the audio mix is an inventive piece of work. The sound effects are spot on, hitting all the right notes; drawing us into this bizarre series of events. Brian Tyler’s music goes a long way to create the films eccentric mood, and is perfectly transferred. The same can be said about the dialogue - few B-movie tracks are so clear, and it surprised me that few of the lines were marred by distortion (when it does happen, the lack of clarity is forgivable). Another fine job from the independent distributor.

The Menus

Wow, these are cool. AB have ditched MGM’s menus in favour of brand-new, 3D options, that really impress. Designed with skill, the menus recreate locations from the flick (the retirement home on Disc 1, and Ho-tep’s ancient temple on the other), with moving elements. They are fully animated and scored, and look fabulous. If someone held a competition for best DVD interface, this would win hands down...

Bonus Material

Here’s where the controversy begins. Should fans double dip and buy this relese too? It includes everything from the MGM set and more, so the answer to that question isn’t simple. That said, the new material is decent, and certainly worth a look. Here’s how it breaks down:

Disc One:

The only new feature here, is an introduction from Bruce Campbell, which is presented in Easter Egg form. To find it, simply highlight the ringing phone in Elvis’s room, and hey presto! Campbell is his usual self-deprecating self, and doesn’t miss the chance for some humour (he receives a “phone call” from Sam Raimi near the end, resulting in a fan-friendly mention of Evil Dead 4). Neat. We also get the commentaries found on the previous edition.

Audio Commentary by Don Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell

A decent yack-track, this takes a reasonably serious “making of” route. A detailed exploration of guerrilla filmmaking, these boys have a lot to say about their great film. The enjoyment shared during the production spills out from every comment they make; their passion for the medium clear from beginning to end. This allows for a highly enjoyable experience, mixing production details and anecdotes, with personal reflection. If you have time on your hands, you should give this track a go.

Audio Commentary by “The King”

Novelty tracks are rarely good, but any chance for Campbell to fool around is welcome. He once again channels the spirit of Elvis, for what is, arguably, one of the first self-referential commentary tracks. Sporadically entertaining, but hardly vital, this is probably a one-listen deal. Still, even the most cynical of viewers will find something to laugh about, as Campbell proves his comic brilliance for the umpteenth time.

Disc Two:

The Old Stuff

Everything good about the past copy is retained here, beginning with "The Making of Bubba Ho-Tep", a 24-minute documentary. It assembles the main cast/crew for interview material. Coscarelli, Campbell and Ossie Davis all contribute. "To Make a Mummy" is 6-minutes, in which costume designer Shelley Kay and the effects team discuss creating the films titular mummy. As you'd expect, a lot of the films success rested on their shoulders. "Fit for a King" (8-minutes) also features Kay, and is an absolute hoot and a half, for its view into the world of Elvis and his mad-cap clothes. "Rock Like an Egyptian", also 8-minutes, is a welcome addition, featuring Coscarelli and Ho-Tep's composer Brian Tyler.

There’s also the deleted scenes, "The Lady's Room" and "Hallway". They don't feature anything spectacular; merely slight scenes that add to character. This comes with optional commentary by Coscarelli and Campbell. This is complemented by "From the Temple Room Floor", a montage of excised footage and small snippets. This also bags commentary. Following this, is a gallery boasting 50-plus stills. Galleries never seem to grab me, but there are some intriguing snaps here.

Documenting the inspiration for the film, is the feature "Joe R. Lansdale Reads from Bubba Ho-Tep". This involves Lansdale reading his story over a collection of stills and artwork. A fantastic addition to the set, allowing us to see Coscarelli's affection for his source.

The New Stuff

First of all, we have “The King and I”, an interview with Coscarelli. It lasts for just under 30-minutes, and concentrates on some of the more interesting elements concerning Bubba Ho-tep - the script, casting Campbell and Davis, getting the film financed, and the effort it took to get the film a distribution deal. Coscarelli is laid-back as always, and the interview is a fun piece, despite the redundancy surrounding some of the comments. He returns for the “UK Premiere Q&A”, which is just that. A relatively small featurette, it’s also worth a look; recorded at last September’s premiere in London. The director answers some questions from the audience, and gets praise from Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright.

Last but not least, is the brand spankin’ new “Bruce Talks Bubba” interview. Campbell is still very enthusiastic about the film, and he goes into some detail about getting the gig, and assuming the mantle of Elvis Presley. The topics range from conventional to fairly random, and the piece remains interesting without outstaying its welcome. On the disc, you’ll also find a music video, which showcases Brian Tyler’s main theme, the trailer, a TV spot, and some biographies. Finally, the set includes a booklet with some liner notes by Campbell.

The Bottom Line

A bona-fide cult oddity, Bubba Ho-tep deserves to be seen by all fans of cinematic shlock. Anchor Bay’s set is a minor improvement on the R1 edition, and for those new to the Bubba phenomenon, it gets my full recommendation. And how can I possibly end this review? With a word from Mr. Presley, of course...

“Thank you, thank you very much”

8 out of 10
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