Let's just get it out there: Bubba Ho-Tep is about an elderly Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) fighting a mummy in a Texas rest-home. In Elvis's corner, there is an elderly African-American fellow (Ossie Davis) who believes he's JFK. You could say JFK is included out of faithfulness to the short-story upon which Ho-Tep is based (unread by me). Or you could just assume director Don Coscarelli really enjoys a challenge.
Actually, the film's casting ensures wide viewing across two specialized, rabid demographics: Elvis fans and Bruce Campbell fans. Some of the former are marked by their staunch, pioneering disbelief that Elvis could actually be dead, later applied to nearly any pop star who died before 50.
Campbell is not dead, but a B (or C) movie star, complete with a horror franchise (the Evil Dead series), a failed TV series (The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.) and an engaging autobiography (If Chins Could Kill), among other projects. He looks like a comic-book matinee idol, and his embodiment of square-jawed machismo as Ash in Army of Darkness (the third Evil Dead film) is that of an actor fully in touch with his comic instincts. I join in with a chorus of movie geeks when I say he should be hired more often.
Campbell is a natural choice for a campy horror movie about Elvis; it's casting, in fact, that sounds straight out of nerd fantasies. But Bubba Ho-Tep isn't as campy as it sounds. To be sure, he isn't exactly playing a nuanced, naturalistic Elvis Aaron Presley, but rather the generically iconic Elvis, based on common folklore and broadly recognizable catchphrases. Yet the cartoonish aspect of his performance is tempered with weariness -- it's a surprisingly touching impersonation. Campbell (who is neither elderly nor from the South) talks and dresses like the kind of cardboard Elvis your uncle could probably do at a wedding reception, but he moves and sounds like a genuine senior citizen. This Elvis (who, we learn, switched places with an impersonator during the seventies, only to have the other man die and leave him penniless) putters around in a walker, has a tumor that has left him mostly impotent, and, at the film's start, cannot bare to get out of bed in the morning. Beneath the outlandishness of the premise, this is a sad, reflective movie illustrating that even the best of us are still susceptible to the horrors of aging. Elvis rises to defend the other residents of the nursing home because no one else seems to care. Try pulling this for an ad blurb: You may never see a horror-comedy with greater resemblance to About Schmidt.
The Ossie Davis character is murkier; he claims to be JFK disguised by "dyed" skin, but doesn't use any Kennedy mannerisms or speech patterns. I accepted Campbell as the real Elvis, but I wasn't sure what to make of Davis. Still, the two actors work well together, and treat the material with an almost shocking amount of dignity.
Of course, dignity isn't always what you want out of a B-movie. The (relative) realism deflates the uppercase out of Bubba Ho-Tep's "B." It's funny and sort of sweet, but rarely thrilling. Elvis engages in spirited combat with a giant bug early on, but the climactic face-off with the mummy is disappointingly brief. What's more, it's preceded by several scenes in which Elvis and Kennedy research just what this creature is; this information doesn't seem to factor much into their final plan which (spoiler alert, I guess) amounts to pretty much just finding the mummy and scuffling with him.
Pokey as it can be, Bubba Ho-Tep still belongs in a unique class: Character-Based Horror Films of 2003, with fellow graduates Willard and May. Like those, Ho-Tep is worth seeing more as a character study than for blood and guts. And given what he made when he was alive, it may be the best movie ever to star Elvis Presley.
Don't miss the DVD, which features commentary from The King himself, among others. A handful of deleted scenes and a few minor extras round out this highly recommended package. Hail to the king.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the nursing home.