“Never, but never, fuck with the King!”
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Bob Ivy, Ella Joyce
In a nutshell:
The basic premise of Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep sounds like the set up fro a joke: Did you hear the one about Elvis Presley and JFK battling a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy? Pretty wacky, but what you actually get is an offbeat comedy-horror that moves at the pace of a shuffling mummy with some touching things to say about ageing and obsolescense. It also has some great B-movie special effects and a career-best turn from Bruce Campbell as Elvis…
Having faked his own death to escape from the pressures of superstardom, Elvis Presley (Campbell) finds himself whiling away his diminishing years in a backwater retirement home in East Texas. No-one believes he’s The King because he switched identities with an Elvis Impersonator and lost all his papers in an unfortunate fire. No-one, that is, apart from an old man who claims to be president John F Kennedy (Davis), dyed black by the authorities so nobody would believe his story.
Things get even stranger when residents start mysteriously dying. Elvis and Jack deduce that the culprit is an ancient Egyptian mummy that was stolen from a museum and lost in a creek near the retirement home. Hungry for souls, the slow and shambling creature preys on the weak and immobile old folk, donning a cowboy hat and boots along the way.
Although they can barely move themselves, Elvis and JFK ride out to face the soul-sucking creep, even if it means going out in a blaze of glory…
Bruce Campbell has become a cult icon largely thanks to his role as Ash in the Evil Dead franchise, but his role as the crotchety seventy-something Elvis Presley might just be the best performance of his career. He plays the Legend of Elvis rather than a realistic portrayal, but he finds surprising depth and nobility in the character. Sure, there are quotable lines and some funny moments like Elvis’s bad kung-fu moves, but Campbell plays him pretty straight and doesn’t delve too much into caricature.
Veteran actor Ossie Davis, best known for his role of Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing, brings wisdom and dignity to the ambiguous character of black JFK. In the world of Bubba Ho-Tep, Elvis’s back story is presented as real, but Jack’s tale is much more difficult to swallow. Even though Elvis does find a mysterious scar on the back of JFK’s head…
Davis was around forty years Campbell’s senior when they made the movie but, thanks to their intuitive chemistry and heavy makeup for the Evil Dead star, there seems almost no age difference at all.
The supporting cast are largely forgettable, but stuntman Bob Ivy gives a memorably creepy physical performance as Bubba Ho-Tep, moving with a stiff, relentless gait that makes him menacing, although he only moves around 200 meters per hour.
Like everything else in Bubba Ho-Tep, the special effects are low-key but effective. Bubba’s mummy makeup is impressive, and there is also a hokey giant scarab beetle that attacks Elvis in his room. It wouldn’t trouble Stan Winston or Jim Henson, but the bug definitely feels of a piece with the usual Don Coscarelli aesthetic. Elvis’s fight with it recalls a similar scene with a low-budget bat in Phantasm, the movie that made Coscarelli’s name.
Brian Tyler’s western-tinged soundtrack hits the right notes of poignancy and heroism at just the right moments. It is surprisingly moving and triumphant when Elvis and JFK head out to their showdown with the mummy to the Hero’s Hallway theme.
Bubba Ho-Tep is an offbeat curio that sounds far sillier than it actually is. Sure, there is an evil mummy in a cowboy hat sucking souls out of old folks’ butts, and the main character is Elvis Presley, but its characters and the subject of old age seriously and is all the more effective for it. It is neither particularly scary or laugh-out-loud funny, but coasts along entertainingly on Coscarelli’s threadbare cult sensibilities. And did I mention it stars Bruce Campbell as the King?