In one form or another, the theory that Elvis Presley had switched places with one of his many impersonators has been floating around since there were Elvis impersonators. “The Twilight Zone” even did an episode on it. Or was it one of the other horror/fantasy anthology series? In any case, “Bubba Ho-Tep” joins in on the Elvis sighting, postulating that Elvis (Bruce Campbell) had, in fact, switched places with one of his impersonators, who subsequently died. The real Elvis continued on, finding work as, of all things, an Elvis impersonator. That is, until an accident during a show breaks his hip and sends him tumbling off stage and into a coma.
Now an old man and living in a nursing home in Mud Creek, Texas, Elvis spends his days lying in bed and peeing into a pan. His hip is so bad he has to use a walker to get around, his vision is starting to go on him, and he’s got an unknown growth on the head of his penis. And although he has since come out of the closet, no one believes he’s the real Elvis. His only friend is Ossie Davis as a black man who claims he’s actually JFK, but conspirators have “dyed” him black. The not so dynamic duo suits up for battle when a mummy wearing a cowboy hat starts stealing the souls of nursing home residents. What’s the King of Rock N Roll to do but kick a lot of butt?
Lest you haven’t figured it out, Don Coscarelli’s “Bubba Ho-Tep” is not to be taken seriously. The story is based on a short story by horror writer Joe R. Lansdale, and is told from the point of view of Elvis. The film’s first 30 minutes is really Elvis telling us about his life, and how he ended up impersonating himself. The whole horror angle comes in at around the 30-minute mark, after Elvis survives an attack by a scarab bug. After that, Elvis and JFK teams up even as their fellow old people continue to drop like flies around them.
There’s a lot to like about “Bubba Ho-Tep”. You don’t even have to be a fan of B-movie living legend Bruce Campbell (“Evil Dead”) to enjoy it. It’s vastly entertaining, with a highly creative screenplay by Coscarelli, the brains behind the “Phantasm” franchise. Coscarelli directs the movie with flair, which comes as a surprise because Coscarelli has never been what you would call a flashy director. Maybe the polished camerawork early on is thanks to cinematographer Adam Janeiro, or perhaps the editor injected his own creativity into the process. Whatever the case, the film’s early moments, when Elvis’ vision betrays him, works really well.
“Bubba Ho-Tep” could have tried to play it straight as a horror movie, but to its credit it never goes that route. Once JFK and Elvis teams up to fight the soul-stealing mummy, the script has them making grand conjectures about the nature of the mummy, and Elvis starts getting strange powers like the ability to read the mummy’s mind, not to mention discovering that fighting the mummy has given him renewed vigor. It’s all vastly silly, but Campbell and Ossie Davis (“Do the Right Thing”) deliver their lines with such a straight face that you can’t help but believe them. Or at least you believe that they believe what they’re saying. The point is, the film is funny and hits all the right comedy notes it strives for.
As for action — well, obviously you shouldn’t expect too much. This is, after all, a movie about two geriatrics whose prime has passed them a long time ago. Elvis uses a walker and JFK rides around on a wheelchair during the movie’s climactic battle. Although it’s interesting to note that Davis’ character gets around pretty well until the end, so you figure it out. Speaking of which, the movie does miss some opportunities to explore the JFK character. For instance, how is it that JFK has a bigger room than everyone else in the nursing home? Who pays for it? Unlike Elvis, who narrates, we never find out all that much about JFK, which is a shame because he’s pretty interesting.
“Bubba Ho-Tep” had a limited theatrical run and is now available on DVD for the general public. The film was made on a relatively low budget, and it shows in some of the gags involving the scarabs, which really look fake. There’s a limited cast, and I swear the exterior of the nursing home looks way too small to house the interior, with its lengthy corridors and many rooms. “Phantasm” star and Coscarelli regular Reggie Bannister shows up much too infrequently as the nursing home’s administrator, and Ella Joyce has a funny role as the nurse who tends to Elvis, including applying a special cream on his, er, special area.
Don’t go into “Bubba Ho-Tep” expecting something serious. The horror elements are played for laughs, and Bruce Campbell is in top form. His Elvis is bloated and grumpy, as you’d expect him to be. Campbell is almost unrecognizable with the sideburns and make-up to help him age, and his Elvis impersonation is impeccable.
Don Coscarelli (director) / Don Coscarelli (screenplay), Joe R. Lansdale (short story)
CAST: Bruce Campbell …. Elvis Presley/Sebastian Haff
Ossie Davis …. Jack Kennedy
Reggie Bannister …. Rest Home Adm.
Ella Joyce …. Nurse
Heidi Marnhout …. Callie
Bob Ivy …. Bubba Ho-tep