Killtoberfest 2 – #19: Bubba Ho-Tep / Detention (2011)

In All, Movies by Kyu

Today on Killtoberfest 2, a pair of obscure horror comedies whose only real commonality is that they are totally suis generis.

First up, Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).


“‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ wants to be a good movie.”
– Roger Ebert

Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie where an aging Elvis Presley and a black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy join forces to fight a mummy. If you’re not in after that, nothing I say could possibly convince you. But I’ll give it a shot.

This is the best movie I’ve seen from Don Coscarelli, who also made the Phantasm series and John Dies at the End. You know how there are those filmmakers who are marginalized by Hollywood, who always have trouble financing their next movie, who never get the shot they deserve? Coscarelli is not one of those people. I don’t mean that he’s a bad filmmaker; just that if you look in the dictionary under “cult director” you’ll find the definition of the phrase “cult director” which he totally is. This man is his own niche, and that niche is sincere, absurdist horror comedies. The secret of Bubba Ho-Tep‘s moderate success is that it emphasizes the sincere part of that statement.

To give you a little more of the story, both Elvis and “JFK” are residents in a local nursing home that they soon realize is being plagued by a soul-sucking mummy (that said mummy can use “any orifice” when sucking souls and seems to have a penchant for the asshole just adds to the horror). It turns out that Elvis (Bruce Campbell in a career best performance) didn’t die after all, but instead switched places with an Elvis impersonator when the pressures of fame got too much for him. Meanwhile, Kennedy (Ossie Davis from Do the Right Thing) insists that his political enemies “dyed” him black and deposited him at this retirement home to get him out of the way. The movie believes Elvis but not Jack, although Elvis makes a point of respecting the man’s delusion. Still, both men forge an unlikely friendship while combating the mummy.

It’s hard to make a mummy actually scary in a movie; they’re just not physically imposing. At heart, they’re culturally specific zombies, and they never got the post-28 Days Later memo about running. But this one is a perfect match up for a couple of old geezers who need wheelchairs and walkers to get around. (Some of the movie reminds me of that one Justified episode where Art has a hilariously slow footchase with a criminal of equally advanced age.) This mummy also has a cowboy hat and boots, for reasons passing my understanding.

This is not a great movie, although I feel warmly towards it. Visual quality has never been Coscarelli’s forte (although that may just be because he’s never been able to afford it), and the film is a little too slow, with a few too many digressions or obvious jokes. (I like the motif of the attendants carrying a body out of the retirement home every day; I didn’t need them to make fun of their own symbolism, too.) But the core of the movie, Campbell’s Elvis, works likes gangbusters. It’s a rich, poignant performance, with Campbell using the accent and the clothing and the heavy makeup to add to his emotional expression rather than detract from them. Elvis is the movie’s narrator, and his voice-over conveys all the weariness and wry depression of a star past his prime, living out his days in anonymity and obscurity. Campbell, beloved in geek circles for starring as Ash in the Evil Dead movies, knows a little something about being an icon, and brings both a sad self-awareness and, in the end, a bedrock badassery to the role. Ultimately the movie is about recapturing your self-confidence at the tail end of a life not necessarily well-lived. Like confidence, Bubba Ho-Tep is almost entirely built on impossibilities and constructs and a general willingness to totally ignore reality, but somehow, magically, it works anyway. That’s pretty great.

Next up, Detention (2011).

“Clapton Davis, you are more concept than reality.”
– Riley Jones, Detention

Yeah, but just enough reality to work.

I have now seen Detention no less than three times in the past two weeks; it is absolutely the highlight of this year’s Killtoberfest, and although I have a number of interesting films planned for these last few days, I fully expect that nothing will top this. This movie validates all of my ridiculous movie-watching habits, and by virtue of its quality and total absence from film conversation in 2011, indicts the entire industry. It is super good and there is a part where a child grows up to be a bully because his classmates cruelly nicknamed him “TV Hand” because there was always a TV on his hand. If this interests you, you’re reading the right review.

I’ve described this film as Scream meets Scott Pilgrim, and as being “popomopopomomo,” the school of filmmaking where the movie does something and then makes fun itself for doing that thing, even though it actually celebrates that thing, and then makes fun of itself for making fun of itself before it gets bored and does something else. (If that sounds exhausting, you’re probably more of a neo-neo-neo-classicist.) But what all these descriptions have in common is that they emphasize Detention‘s frenzied, ADD, channel-flipping tonal crazy quilt nature. That’s what makes Detention so fun, but it’s not what makes Detention awesome. (Nor is it the awesome montage of the past 20 years worth of music and fashion styles, or the awesome fact that the main character spends half the movie narrating her so-called life and the other half dressed like Claire Danes from My So-Called Life, or the awesome and subtle digs at the sexism present in teen movies, or even the unpredictably awesome performance from Dane freaking Cook, although those things are all, indeed, awesome. END PARENTHETICAL)

No, what makes Detention great (and Scott Pilgrim and other movies like it) is not just that it’s in a Millenial-infused, pop culture-heavy music video language, but that it uses that language to express simple but honest sentiment about the perils and yearnings of high school. I don’t know about your adolescence, but mine was about as incoherent as Detention depicts it. Sure, our mascot wasn’t a bear full of weirdly magnetic electronics and none of my teachers were comically gay and comically handsome at the same time and it’s very true that nobody decided to start severing limbs off the student body while dressed as a horror movie villain. But life as a teen is pretty much comedyromancetragedyboredommoviesironymusichorrorwtfohwell all jammed together in rapid succession all day every day. There’s a moment in Detention where the characters get drunk and just start dancing raunchily for no good reason while turtles hump on the TV behind them and hey, that’s just how it is. Teenagers are slaves to their hormones struggling to socialize with one another under pressure situations before their brains have fully formed, and sometimes things get random or silly or crazy or fucked up. Sometimes you’re naked in a Youtube video and sometimes there’s a suicide bomber and sometimes your favorite song is on.

The point is, everybody in Detention wants something and can’t have it (everybody! yes, even the bear) and that makes up the tragedy of their lives that time and circumstance turns into comedy or horror or science fiction. Detention gets the way culture is the lens through which we see the world, and it also gets that it doesn’t need to stage an entire food fight because it can cut after three seconds to everybody having stained clothes and we’ll understand what happened between shots. In other words, Detention is all about using cultural and filmmaking shorthand to express real, sincere emotion–and does so with an infectious, relentless positivity that puts the lie to the idea that post-modern irony means cynicism and emptiness. It’s paced like a rollercoaster but it always takes the time to let its characters feel, and despite all the twists and turns of the plot (each more ridiculous than the last) it never forgets that the characters and their desires are powering the story and providing the stakes. It never forgets anything else, either; there are dozens of callbacks and when I say the movie cannibalizes itself, I mean it does so like the proverbial Indians (is that racist?) using every part of the buffalo: nothing is wasted. The result is less movie than mix tape, an insane and beautiful collage of jokes and stories and songs and meta-awareness that always threatens to topple itself but never fails to please. You have been reading a review of Detention.

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