Writer: Don Coscarelli, from the short story by Joe Lansdale
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy
Plot: In Mud Creek Texas, there’s a quiet little nursing home called Shady Rest with a few extraordinary residents. Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell) lies in bed bemoaning how his grand “plan” went horribly wrong. As he feeling sorry for himself, his roommate loudly expires in the bed next to him. That night, a woman is attacked in bed by a huge scarab beetle. After the beetle bites her, a horrific man appears in her bedroom. Down the hall, Sebastian sees her being dragged past his door, asking for help. Thinking it’s a dream, he goes back to sleep, and the next morning, she’s found dead.
Sebastian wakes up to find a young woman going through his deceased roommate’s belongings. Callie (Heidi Marnhout), the man’s daughter, starts throwing things out, and Sebastian asks if he can keep some of them. He’s dismayed that she hasn’t been to visit him in the three years since he’d come to the home, and he wonders if his own daughter would visit him if she knew he was still alive. His nurse (Ella Joyce) comes in and he insists she call him by his given name. He doesn’t go by Sebastian Haff anymore – he’s Elvis Presley. The nurse insists he’s an old Elvis impersonator who has had mental problems since he came out of a coma years ago. Elvis claims he traded place with the real Haff, an Elvis impersonator, after he decided he was tired of the manufactured thing his managers had turned him into. Elvis isn’t Shady Rest’s only celebrity tenant, though. His friend Jack (Ossie Davis) claims to be John F. Kennedy, victim of a conspiracy. Jack says his brain was tampered with and his skin dyed black in order to get him out of the way years ago. Even Elvis is skeptical of Jack’s story.
That night, when Elvis wakes up to go to the bathroom, he sees a scarab the size of his hand. He manages to kill it and goes to Jack’s room, where his wheelchair-bound friend is lying on the floor facedown. He’s alive, but confused, saying he saw someone “scuttling” through the hall, someone he believes the conspiracy sent to finish him off (possibly Lyndon Johnson). As he thinks about the bugs, about Jack, about Callie, Elvis starts to feel an energy he hasn’t had in years. For the first time in years, something interesting is happening.
The next night, Jack wakes Elvis up to show him bathroom graffiti that turns out to be Egyptian hieroglyphics. Jack tells Elvis that, the night before, his strange assassin tried to suck out his soul, and he believes there’s a connection. Elvis finds a book that indicates the creature may be a mummy, one that survives by eating souls, but can’t last long on “small souls,” souls of people who have little joy for life. The nursing home makes for the perfect place to feed without drawing suspicion. As the lights start to flash Elvis steps into the hall and encounters the mummy – a gnarled, ancient man in cowboy attire (Bob Ivy). Their eyes lock and Elvis sees moments of the mummy’s life. As it walks away, another resident comes out of his room and dies of a ruptured heart. Elvis and Jack take comfort in the knowledge that the mummy failed to consume the old man’s soul.
The next day Elvis tries to track the mummy, finding his way to a creek nearby. In the water, he finds a submerged van near a bridge, and recalls the mummy – from its own memories – being lost in a van crash. Jack meets him later with research that indicates there was a mummy stolen from a museum years ago by a pair of crooks in a van, on the night of an incredible storm. Although Jack wants to adopt a defensive strategy against the monster, Elvis persuades him to go on the offensive. Suited up and armed, the old men prepare for battle. When the mummy appears and tries to suck out Jack’s soul, Elvis douses it with lighter fluid and sets it ablaze. Jack implores him to “take care of business,” and dies. Elvis climbs in Jack’s wheelchair and charges, battling the mummy to the edge of the creek. He lights the mummy on fire again, and it plunges into the water, inert. Too wounded to go on, Elvis Aaron Presley dies as what he always only pretended to be in his movies: a hero.
Thoughts: By the time Bubba Ho-Tep came out in 2002, ten years after the final Evil Dead/Army of Darkness film, Bruce Campbell had legitimately ascended to the status of a cult hero, even if he’d never had any real mainstream success. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, much of the mainstream public still is unaware of his sheer awesometude. On the other hand, he’s largely avoided making any tremendous suck-fests (largely, not entirely), because he has a lot of freedom to pick movies that really speak to him. This utterly, utterly bizarre film fits that bill perfectly.
At its core, this movie has all the hallmarks of a Type-B horror spoof: Nursing Home Elvis and Black JFK team up to fight a mummy. How could that be anything but a goofy farce? But in fact, although the characters and performances are very funny, the movie is surprisingly grim, from the unending pallor of death around the nursing home to the thoughtless, sometimes cruel things the residents do to each other. An early scene features a woman stealing a tin of cookies from a friend in an iron lung, a crime for which she is targeted by the scarabs. It’s actually a neat sort of twist on the classic horror-as-morality-play motif. The characters who fall victim to that trope are usually teenagers. Seeing an old woman chosen to be struck down for her sins is an interesting change of pace.
With the horror played straight, it’s largely up to Campbell and Davis – and the ludicrous nature of their situation – to provide the comedy. Campbell’s voiceover narration does a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard. His commentary on the world around him, his feelings about being an old man, and his regret over how his “new life” went so terribly wrong, are actually pretty amusing. The flashbacks that show him trading places with Haff are entertaining as well, if they’re left somewhat unclear as to exactly how real they are. The film doesn’t bother to explain whether our heroes really are who they say they are, or if they simply suffer the delusions of old age, and I’m rather glad they don’t. Confirmation would make the film almost too ridiculous to be believed, while busting the myths would just make them sad figures. The ambiguity is practically essential for the film to remain entertaining.
Coscarelli makes liberal use of the comedy factor in seeing older characters throw around toilet humor. Elvis is constantly concerned with a growth in a private area under his pants, and is overjoyed when it starts to show a little life while his nurse applies ointment. The discussion of the mummy itself is ripe with scatological commentary (pardon the pun). It’s all justified in that it works for the purposes of the story, but one can’t help but get the impression it was structured in such a way as to wring out a few extra laughs by the juxtaposition.
One of the few bits where the laughs fall flat comes from the pair of hearse drivers who arrive after each death. The first one is treated fairly straight, but the next one comes with jokes about the smell of the corpse, and by the final time they appear it’s an outright comedy of errors, as they drop the body and stumble into the bushes. Sandwiched, as it is, between two fairly intense scenes, it’s no doubt intended to be a little light comic relief, but as Coscarelli just made us feel a sense of honor for the body they’re transporting (it’s the man who died naturally and escaped the mummy), treating him as a slapstick prop just feels wrong.
I give Coscarelli some slack, though, for the way he manages to pull some genuine tenderness out of these two truly absurd characters. The friendship between them feels honest and genuine, even if you suspect they’re both totally off their rockers. The scene where Elvis asks Jack what Marilyn Monroe was like in bed would feel crass in most other cases, but instead, it comes across like a bonding moment between two old soldiers, and it makes us believe in both of them just before they’re about to risk their lives to stop the monster. By the time Jack dies, it’s actually heart-wrenching. When Elvis dies a few minutes later, his last words are simultaneously funny, sad, and absolutely perfect: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
On paper, even as a spoof this movie would sound like a ridiculous, unbelievable, unworkable jumble of big ideas that can’t possibly work in concert. Somehow, though, Coscarelli wrings out a clever, entertaining, and impressively emotional film, one of the deepest movies we’ve yet encountered here in Lunatics and Laughter. That’s not the sort of thing I would have expected, and it’s surprises like this one that make this project worth doing.
Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.