Bubba Ho-Tep

When he introduced this at the Jamboree, Joe Bob described the backstory as: Joe Lansdale (Cold In July) was having trouble getting his work produced by Hollywood and so, when tasked to write a story for an Elvis anthology commemorating the anniversary of his death, he wrote the least filmable story ever written.

Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) read it and thought, “Perfect.” I mean, I’m assuming. Because he somehow got this movie made, and more spectacularly, it’s a really fine and ultimately serious reflection on age.

The premise is that Elvis (Bruce Campbell) is living in an old folks home in East Texas. Apparently, tiring of the crazy fame, he decided to swap places with one of his imitators and it was the imitator that ended up killing himself in Graceland. The real Elvis, unfortunately, had a terrible accident that put him in a coma for years, and he’s never really recovered. When our story begins, an Egyptian mummy has escaped from a travelling exhibit and is feeding off the seniors at Shady Rest (where Elvis is staying).

The women in Elvis’ life.

Elvis begins to suspect supernatural goings on, but of course no one will take him seriously, so he enlists the help of his friend, Jack (Ossie Davis). Jack, as it turns out, is JFK. Apparently LBJ put his brain into the body of a black man, or—I’m fuzzy on this, honestly—maybe turned him black with all the post-assassination shenanigans? Hardly matters. (The original story also had John Dillinger, but after a sex change.)

The two of them join feeble forces to fight one of the feeblest undead critters in cinema. The mummy, as it turns out, is pretty weak, and sustains himself by siphoning off the life force of the living. He’s targeting seniors because no one will notice. But they’re not exactly rich in elan vital, so the mummy never gets up to full force—though he’s fairly formidable nonetheless, sending scarab beetles to do his dirty work.

You might say, “Well, ‘gique, this sounds like goofy fun,” and I’d agree with you. But it does transcend its own budgetary limitations to become a fairly serious reflection on age, celebrity, even the meaning of life. The goofy, weird, mildly exploitative aspects of it all ground it in such a way that when it goes for an emotional note, it hits with surprising effectiveness.

Old people wandering in the dark looking for trouble.

Bruce Campbell has a lot to do with this. When I saw it in the theater (they had to shuffle around the few dozen copies they had, so it never played long anywhere), I was surprised to find that he could act. And I don’t mean that as a knock: Campbell has legitimate star power, which is a rarity in B-movies. He’s not someone who has to act, he just kind of has to be Bruce.

Here he does a very fine job as Elvis—without coming off like an Elvis impersonator. Part of it is the makeup, which is a much older an Elvis than ever was. (And probably older looking than it should’ve been.) Part of it is the idea that it’s maybe not actually Elvis. After all, Ossie Davis’ belief that he’s JFK is even more outlandish—and our Elvis doesn’t believe him!—which makes us question the whole premise, .

Ossie, of course, is great in one of his last movie roles. Joe Bob called out the nuanced performance of Ella Joyce as The Nurse, which I had not appreciated before. I’m not sure if she was supposed to be a Nurse Ratched-type, but she has a kind of condescending kindness that’s almost worse. It’s richer, anyway.

Anyway, I saw it once at at the time and I think once more a few years later, but not in over a decade. I was pleased at how well it held up.



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