In the movies, I always played the heroic types. But when the stage lights went out, it was time for drugs, and stupidity, and the coveting of women. Now it’s time. Time to be a little of what I had always fantasized of bein’—a hero. Elvis Presley, Bubba Ho-Tep
Unless you've been living in a cave in the snowblind wastes for the last three decades, you probably realize that today, August 16, marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley. I remember where I was that fateful day: standing in a used bookstore. The radio, the machine he changed from a dramatic medium into a jukebox, carried the news.
His untimely death at the age of 42 has gotten me thinking about life and death—and the choices we make between. I'm not the only one, of course, to see in Elvis a template for the seductions of fame. As his legend has grown, a slew of stories and films have appeared, all asking, "What if?" I thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you a favorite of mine.
Right off the bat, some caveats. If you’re offended by vulgar language (including talk about bodily functions) and frank sex talk, you don’t want to see this film. It’s got plenty of both. If horror (e.g., mummy movies) gives you the willies, leave this one in the sarcophagus and lurch away into the night. If you don’t like your genres mixed, then you won’t like this strange cocktail of drama, comedy, and horror. Pass it by. You can live just as long and die just as happy without Bubba Ho-Tep.
If, however, you understand that the wrapping isn’t the gift; if you want to see something original; if you think you’re pretty good at “getting it,” then, by all means rent, buy, or check out of your local library this oddly compelling, blackly funny, ultimately moving film.
The plot of the movie, made on a shoestring, is really pretty simple: Elvis didn’t die. He simply got tired of fame and fortune and quit. Finding an Elvis-impersonator, Sebastian Haff, he traded his life in exchange for freedom. It was the impersonator who died on the toilet seat, not Elvis. The King lived, albeit playing the role of the very impersonator he’d sold his life to. That’s right: The real Elvis became an Elvis-impersonator. And he liked it! Or he did until he fell off a stage in some hick town one night and broke his hip. Twenty years went by. The world thought the King was dead. In fact, he lay all that time in an east Texas nursing home licking his wounds.
Simple, right? Wait. It gets better.
Sometime before, a bus carrying a stolen Egyptian sarcophagus had fallen into a nearby river. Inside was—you guessed it!—a living mummy. Needing souls to survive, the hideous walking relic entered the above-mentioned rest home in search of sustenance. Elvis is slow to catch on, but, thankfully, he’s got a friend there to help him put the pieces together—none other than President John F. Kennedy. Of course, “Jack” is a crazy old black man (“They dyed me this color! That’s how clever they are!”). But, crazy or not, when the chips are down, these two old geezers are ready to suit up and get down to business.
Bruce Campbell, whom fans of horror revere for his Army of Darkness series, makes a splendid, if decrepit, Elvis. Ossie Davis (who was 86 at the time) takes the part of Jack, a guy fruity as a nut cake, and imbues him with strength and dignity. By the end of the movie, these two had captured my imagination and fired my own soul.
The film has fun with our heroes’ physical limitations, but it never makes fun of them—or the elderly. In fact, it functions well as a commentary on our culture’s ridiculous love-affair with Youth and Beauty. As a pastor, having spent many an hour in those human filing cabinets we call nursing homes, I can attest to that which the movie depicts so well: the loneliness and despair of a growing, all-but-invisible portion of our society. Abraham J. Heschel wrote, “A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.”
This isn’t to say that the elderly are naturally good. I’ve known many an elderly person that left a lot to be desired as a person. Some traits, like stubbornness, aren’t so much the result of old age as old habits. There is always poignancy to the human loss of vim and vigor. Yet the residents of Mud Creek Rest Home aren’t merely sad and pathetic. They’re souls, some big, some small. The prime example of of the former is “Kemosabe,” who wears a mask beneath a white hat and fires empty pistols at imaginary enemies. He goes down with his boots on, in possession of his own soul. He’s painted in sharp contrast to the old lady who uses what wits she still has merely to sate her appetites. She loses her shriveled raisin of a soul.
A major theme of Bubba, then, is the essence of the individual. When everything is stripped away from a person—home, family, wealth, health, mind—what is left? The movie frankly calls it the soul. It further believes that, though a man fritters away his youth, alienates his family, and lives only for himself, he can still be saved—if he flexes his will. Elvis’s body now fails him, but he still can choose whether to confront evil or sink into self-pity.
It’s a hopeful message the film leaves us with, but one fraught with peril. Deathbed conversions are all well and good, but how much life, how much soul, is frittered away over the decades? One choice leads to another; one foot follows the other, down, down, down the wrong path. If God is there, as the film hints that He is, then can we really be assured of a warm welcome into His presence regardless of how we’ve lived?
I don’t want to have to find out. That is, I don’t want to exploit the grace of God. If we don’t need to love and live truth (as much as we can at least), what happens after death doesn’t matter. Either we’ll will sleep the Big Sleep or else get into heaven, no questions asked. We’re okay.
But if it does matter how we live, what we choose, then we’re playing for stakes greater than we can possibly imagine.
Meanwhile, there are still ragged, lurching horrors stalking the nighttime hallways of my own heart. They must be faced, and today. Not tomorrow.
Image copyright Vitagraph Films.
Gary D. Robinson, preacher, writer, and actor, lives in Xenia, Ohio.
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