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Bubba Ho-Tep

Dir. Don Coscarelli, 2002
I saw Don Cascarelli introduce a screening of Bubba Ho-Tep a few weeks ago, and he said something in the pre-screening Q&A that I think perfectly sums up what makes something an epic. I’m paraphrasing, but he said: “there’s no way Elvis died of a heart attack on the toilet.”

The best cult movies are ones that become so because they are good, but they are good because they make you feel strange, alienated. I’ll return to this in a moment, but here’s a quick plot summary with spoilers:

Elvis (or a very good Elvis impersonator) has dick cancer and is wasting away in a nursing home. He has few friends, one of which is a man who claims to be John F. Kennedy (though he is black and played by the late, great Ossie Davis). A mummy that sucks souls out of assholes comes to feed on the old folks in the home, and Elvis and JFK have to team up to vanquish it. They win, with Elvis managing to torch the mummy and send it back to hell or wherever it is mummies come from. Both protagonists die heroically in the process.
Now what makes a movie with bandy, scatological humor and an outlandishly ridiculous premise an epic? Alienation. For me, an epic is something that takes a fundamental truth about our experience of the world and transforms it into something nicer, something bigger than the sum of its parts.

If we’re very unlucky, we will get old. We will no longer participate in the world. It
will move on. Eventually, we become pieces of furniture, childlike, a toy to be trotted out in front of our younger, more hale replacement humans. Then we die, and it’s all done. Bubba Ho-Tep doesn’t shy away or hide from the squalor of the end of human life. It’s funny that a campy horror film about Elvis fighting a mummy can say something more profound about human suffering than Oscar-bait like Manchester by the Sea.
Bubba Ho-Tep is an epic because it transforms a truth about the aging and dying experience into something more meaningful than what it ever can be in reality. The idea of Elvis is bigger than a man dying on a toilet somewhere. It’s a hero going down for what’s right, and that’s what Elvis does, in spite of his advanced age and frailty. Art that simply shows is not enough for me, nor is this likely the case for others like me. We know what waits for us at the end of the tunnel, and there isn’t much in being simply, exploitatively, and lazily reminded of those facts.

Epics make you feel strange because we know their fundamental untruth, but they remind us that we can imagine something else—it’s not enough, but it is a beautiful lie.

Where can I watch it?

Bubba Ho-Tep is available to stream on just about all the paid streaming services out there, so I won't bother providing a link. What are you waiting for? Get out there and watch it.

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