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A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Bruce Campbell. No, it wasn't any sort of great story or anything, I merely stood in line for two hours to have him sign my copy of his autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor and then had a friend snap a picture of us so I could show it off to my coworkers. I recall that a couple of things from our very brief conversation suprised me: one, that he had no idea who Kevin Smith was; and two, that we should look for him to play Elvis in a horror movie in the future. I had trouble believing that one would ever see the light of day, but it has. And finally, a year and a half since it was initially released, I finally got to see it in a fruity little arthouse theater in town.
Sometimes, a movie can be sold on premise alone. Last summer, I came across a little movie called REIGN OF FIRE, which was certainly in the running for greatest premise ever: Dragons vs. U.S. Military helicopters. I didn't even need to see the film, the concept was so good. But BUBBA HO-TEP kicks the ever-loving shit out of that concept with what hands-down is the greatest premise ever devised for a major motion picture: Elvis, who is alive and living in a retirement home, teams up with a black man who believes he's John F. Kennedy to fight an ancient Egyptian Mummy that wears cowboy boots.
Yes, you can read that again if you like, but I assure you, it's the real plot. And only more compelling than that is the man playing the lead role: Bruce Campbell, star of the EVIL DEAD trilogy and cult hero extraordinnaire. Portraying perhaps the most believable King of Rock and Roll in the history of cinema, Campbell helps make this one hell of a fun movie.
Basically, it goes like this: Elvis, some years in the past, decided that he had had enough of the fame and fortune and decided to trade places with the greatest Elvis impersonator in the world. Of course, the impersonator led just a reckless a lifestyle as the real thing, and Sebastian Haff dies in the place of the King. The real Elvis, who is enjoying his life of impersonating an impersonator of himself, has his hip go out and is confined to a walker for the rest of his life. He lives a soulless existence in a convalescent care home, just waiting to die alone. His one friend in the home is a guy that even he has trouble believing: A black man, played by Ossie Davis, who is convinced that he is John F. Kennedy, skin dyed and put into hiding to avoid any additional assassination attempts.
Strange things start happening around the nursing home. Residents are dropping like flies, and giant scarab beetles are harassing the tenants. One such beetle makes the mistake of coming after Elvis, and next thing you know, he and JFK are uncovering mysteries of a mummy who is preying on the souls of the old folks who share their dwelling.
Fortunately, the story keeps from taking itself seriously, which is necessary when you have a plot this far-fetched. Everything is done in a tongue-in-cheek manner, from the explanation of the mummy's M.O. and origins, to the handling of the actuality of the identities of our stars. The idea that these people are really the King and Mr. President are presented in such a way that while it seems impossible to believe, you just can't help but wonder if they are in fact supposed to be them. Both Campbell and Davis put their hearts into their performances, and don't for a second show any doubt that their characters believe in who they are.
The action is cartoonish, in its most effective way. An early scene debuting the mummy's prowess shows a gluttonous old bitty getting what she may very well deserve, and elicited cheers from our audience. When Elvis himself first meets the Scarab, Bruce Campbell shines like he has in many other roles. There's no coincidence, I'm sure, in the similarities between his action hero Ash from THE EVIL DEAD films and the suddenly sprightly fighter that Elvis becomes when threatened. When we finally see the Mummy in all his glory, done up in the B-est of B-movie special effects and complete with gaudy western wear, it's hard not to chuckle just a bit. And there's no words to explain the power of seeing Campbell, decked out in full Vegas jumpsuit, hobbling out to battle with his rickety walker in tow.
You can chalk a lot of that up to the director. Don Coscarelli is the man responsible for the PHANTASM series, one of the few horror franchises that has managed to retain the same director for a series of films. Even after a handful of features and a quarter-century in the biz, Coscarelli still takes the kind of chances that you normally only see in first-time features. It's hard to believe that you're witnessing the work of a veteran director here, and I mean that as a compliment. Too many of the greats in this genre fall too easily into safe territory. Wes Craven and Sam Raimi may be great filmmakers now, but they've grown up too much to successfully put together a film like this. Coscarelli still looks like he's having fun making this movie, and the end result is a movie with no pretention at all.
The movie is by no means perfect, and part of that lies in the fact that this feels like what it is: a short story noticably stretched out into a feature film. There's a lot of scenes that seem like filler, and a whole lot of Elvis just struggling to get from point A to point B in his feeble state. Some of this is effective in establishing tone, but it's certainly not well-hidden that they could have lopped off a good 15-20 minutes. Of course, there's the predictable flood of jokes that tie in to the premise. While a lot of it did work, There may have been one too many "thankyou, thankyouverymuch" for my taste. The end result of the movie is also a bit of a letdown, although "Suck the Dog Dick of Anubis" may well be the best subtitled catchphrase to ever come out of the genre.
But overall, this is exactly what a movie should be. It doesn't try to shelve itself into a niche, it doesn't try to make excuses for its lack of plausibility, and it pushes the right buttons to provide a great time for the audience. I realize that I saw the movie in a room full of fanboys who had been waiting forever to get a chance to finally witness it, but it still says something about your movie when you can get the crowd as into it as this one.
For those who aren't in one of the handful of cities that may get a chance to see BUBBA HO-TEP theatrically, you may have to wait for it to hit DVD. Unfortunately, only seven prints of this film exist, so it's not exactly a multiplex-filler. It is being shopped around to cities across the U.S. for extremely limited engagements right now, so if you haven't seen it, keep an eye peeled for it to roll through your town. It's bound to be a future cult classic.
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