By Ian Long
Is your heart filled with pain?
Shall I come back again?
Tell me, dear, are you lonesome tonight?
Death and resurrection loom large in the legend of Elvis Presley – at least as far back as these lyrics, which he recorded in 1960.
But the theme was given a new twist in Don Coscarelli’s film BUBBA HO-TEP (2002), which features an elderly Elvis (possibly the real article, possibly a lying or delusional impersonator) who is living in a residential care home in rural Texas.
Elvis teams up with another inmate, an elderly black man called Jack who’s convinced that he is the assassinated President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, to fight a monstrous Egyptian mummy which is terrorising the home.
Elvis: But Jack uhh, no offence, but... President Kennedy was a white man.
JFK: That's how clever they are. They dyed me this colour, all over. Can you think of a better way to hide the truth than that?
If all this sounds like a crazed collaboration between David Lynch and William Burroughs, that’s pretty much how it plays. It shouldn’t work – but in a strangely satisfying and even touching way, it does.
And it can teach us some valuable lessons about screenwriting.
What's it really about?
Without giving away the story’s ending, the idea of a ‘good death’ – significant, appropriate and just – emerges as its theme. A ‘bad death’ is threatened by the Mummy, which feeds on the souls of the care home’s residents, preventing them from passing on to the next realm.
Rites of Passage
This theme shows that the film is a RITE OF PASSAGE story (in a Horror/Comedy mode).
Many people think this genre only covers 'coming-of-age' narratives, with adolescents passing into adulthood; but our lives incorporate many transitions, which can inspire stories about:
Bubba Ho-Tep is about the last passage we undertake – from old age to death.
Why Elvis and JFK?
Viewed like this, the ‘random’ choice of Elvis and JFK as protagonists makes more sense. Both men were cut down in the prime of life, Elvis in particular having made a swift transition from gilded youth to corpulent late middle-age (and ignominious death) while missing out most of the natural steps along the way.
It may be too much of a stretch to give Elvis a fictional happy life. But if he's granted a meaningful death, perhaps the sour taste of his real passing can be mitigated.
Why does it work?
Bruce Campbell’s pitch-perfect turn as a ruefully self-critical Elvis gives the story real poignancy. Strong design and cinematography conjure up the care home's twilight atmosphere. The Rite of Passage theme brings depth and weight.
There’s something of a ‘conjuring trick’ aspect to this film. We’ve all heard of Elvis, JFK, and the Mummy – but surely they can't fit into a single story? Our interest is piqued, and we feel an added frisson of enjoyment when it turns out that they can.
Using well-known historical or mythical figures - no matter how outlandishly - is a short-cut to audience recognition (and a useful promotional tool)
…And the Mummy?
The choice of the Mummy as antagonist also makes thematic sense; he’s another person who’s failed to make the final transition, is stuck in a form he should have transcended, and has become evil and monstrous as a result.
Rite of Passage, Genre and Horror
Horror stories can dramatise the Rite of Passage theme in especially powerful terms. For instance:
We’ll look into more deeply Rite of Passage stories, and many other narrative strategies which open up the genre, in our exciting WRITING HORROR NOW workshop on May 20.
Click here to book and find out more – places are limited!
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.