This is the first Elvis movie I’ve ever liked.
Don’t get me wrong, “Viva Las Vegas” has Ann-Margaret back when she was still quite the kitten with a whip, and “Kid Galahad” is enjoyable simply because it might be the worst boxing movie of all time, but “Bubba Ho-Tep” is the first movie that actually made me root for the King.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Elvis is played by the incomparable Bruce Campbell, or that Ossie Davis plays former President JFK, or that the whole thing is based on a short story by the great Joe R. Lansdale. In retrospect, there was little chance I *wouldn’t* like this movie.
The premise is simple: suppose Elvis didn’t die in 1977, but switched identities with an Elvis impersonator during the early 1970’s in order to escape the harsh glare of fame. Further, assume the impersonator died and Elvis broke a hip while performing, eventually landing in an East Texas retirement home. Introduce him to a man claiming to be JFK and throw in a soul-sucking mummy using their rest home as a feeding ground and you’ve pretty much got it.
You need to understand one thing from the beginning: Bruce Campbell IS Elvis. No cinematic depiction, be it Kurt Russell’s or Val Kilmer’s or (snicker) Don Johnson’s, has ever been as eerily accurate as Campbell’s. Hell, Presley himself (never an accomplished thespian) would’ve been hard pressed to do a better job. The Elvis at the beginning of “Bubba Ho-Tep” is a pale reflection of the old King; he needs a walker to get around, has a possibly cancerous growth on his penis, and hasn’t had a boner in “two presidential elections,” as he puts it. The King is, like most royalty, an inveterate letch, yet manages at the same time to be introspective and remorseful. He looks back on his failed marriage and estrangement from his daughter with real regret. Campbell gets slotted as a genre actor quite a bit – all pratfalls and goofy one-liners. And while it’s true “Bubba Ho-Tep” will never get mistaken for “My Dinner with Andre,” the acting chops he exhibits here are pretty damn impressive. Within ten minutes, you almost believe it really is Elvis on screen. He’s that good.
After a series of grisly deaths at the rest home, and a hilarious encounter with a giant scarab beetle, Elvis meets a man claiming to be JFK. Of course, this JFK happens to be black and tells him “They” have stolen his brain on order to hide the truth of what happened in Dallas. “JFK” claims the deaths are the work of an ancient Egyptian mummy who removes a person’s soul from…a certain orifice. Elvis, after some initial reluctance, sees a chance at redemption. Here is an opportunity to actually *be* the heroic figure he played in all those god-awful movies, to save people too helpless to save themselves, and to kick some a*s. Soon enough, the stage is set for an epic clash between our geriatric heroes and their ancient foe.
Those expecting a gore-fest or a straight horror film are barking up the wrong tree. “BH-T” is more understated than you might imagine. The mummy, Bubba Ho-Tep (so named because of his penchant for cowboy hats and Tony Lamas), is on screen for a surprisingly short amount of time, as the bulk of the film is devoted to Elvis and his relationship with JFK.
On a side note: I saw this movie at a screening/book-signing for Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, and Bruce commented on his sense of wonder at Ossie Davis being in this movie at all. It’s true he renders a certain sense of gravitas to the proceedings, and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Davis-as-JFK talking about a mummy “putting his mouth on your a*****e.” Davis gives the movie the credibility it desperately needs if it ever hopes to find a distributor, and while I may be very much mistaken, he actually seemed to be enjoying the role.
As a study of American iconography, the movie is something to behold (Elvis and JFK even encounter a fellow resident – sporting a pair of six-guns, a white hat, and mask – who goes by the name “Kemosabe”… I guess the Clayton Moore estate was stingy with the rights). America has always been a country in need of heroes, and who better than two of our most mythic citizens? I suspect the mummy itself doesn’t really represent anything, though JFK is initially convinced it’s Lyndon Johnson.
The movie is also sublime in its baseness. Elvis muses on ways to get his nurse into bed with him, while one particularly vile rest home resident wanders the halls looking for things to steal from her fellow patients. The Mud Creek Rest Home is a study in squalor (which is more depressing than I care to admit, since a real VA hospital was used for the movie). And any film that has Bruce Campbell as Elvis saying, “Never, ever f**k with the King” to a 3000-year old mummy in a Stetson is a joy to behold. Don Coscarelli (“Phantasm I – n”) does a fine job, and the score by Brian Tyler (Six-String Samurai) is both moving and evocative.
The film belongs to Campbell and Davis, however. The script adaptation is surprisingly faithful to Lansdale’s original story (even going so far as to include the line “mucho mojo,” a shout-out to Lansdale’s excellent ‘Hap and Leonard’ novels), and allows both actors, though most notably Campbell, to do their thing.
I loved this film; from the opening “Ben-Hur” nod to the hieroglyph subtitles, it’s simultaneously hilarious and poignant, with great performances. However leaving the theater I couldn’t help but be a little discouraged, because unless some studio decides to take a chance on “BH-T” I’m never going to see it again. During the screening, Campbell mentioned that “Bubba Ho-Tep” was the weirdest script he’d ever read, but that was a GOOD THING because it’s *not* your cookie cutter Hollywood formula picture. So step up to the plate Paramount, or Universal, or Sony. If you can force another f*****g Charlie’s Angels or “Bad Boys” movie on us, you can blow one day of their catering budget to distribute something original.
Yeah, I didn’t think so.