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Bubba Ho-tep   A-

Vitagraph Films / Silver Sphere Corporation

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Don Coscarelli (based on the story by Joe R. Lansdale)
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Bob Ivy, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Larry Pennell, Reggie Bannister.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Bubba Ho-tep is the way it manages to blindside you with moments of heartfelt poignancy. This is, after all, a movie with Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis Presley who teams up with an old black guy who might be John F. Kennedy to take out a soul-sucking mummy that's been preying on residents of their East Texas rest home. More than just a great B-movie, it combines sharp comedy, old-fashioned monster movie atmospherics, and genuine heart to create a film that's not merely about kicking undead ass, but also about dealing with regret and, ultimately, finding redemption.

The King's past haunts him as he wastes away in a sleepy rest home, with only the daily routine of a nurse slathering ointment over a strange growth on his pecker to break up the crushing boredom. He regrets leaving his wife and daughter and wonders if he could have his fame back if he wanted. You see, he switched identities with an Elvis impersonator years before his supposed death and now he's a sad, cranky geezer who can't convince his nurse or anyone else that he's really Elvis Presley. So there's not much for the king of rock 'n' roll to do but wither away and die as he wallows in self-pity and regret. Well, that is, until an evil Egyptian mummy decked out in cowboy duds crashes the party.

Before long, hieroglyphics are appearing on bathroom walls and giant scarab beetles are attacking the residents. In one enjoyably intense scene, Elvis uses a bedpan to fight off a massive flying beetle and delivers one of a few great zingers: "Never fuck with the King." An old black man who claims to be JFK (played by the wonderful Ossie Davis) befriends Elvis and together they try to unlock the mysteries behind the strange happenings. Upon discovering the truth, they decide to take a stand against the monster invading their home. When Elvis throws on his white sequined jumpsuit and grabs his walker and Kennedy slips into his electric wheelchair, there's an über-cool slow-motion shot of the geriatric duo making their way down a hallway to seek out the undead bastard for the final showdown.

Based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale, the movie was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, the wicked mind behind the Phantasm series. Coscarelli juggles all the elements -- the comedy, the horror, and the drama -- with such grace that neither the humor nor the poignance seems contrived. Sure, on the surface it seems like a silly B-movie, but Coscarelli has his actors play it in a way that's oddly convincing. They don't play it as camp, but it's still absolutely hilarious. Right underneath the humor, though, is an affecting undercurrent of sadness, which is what leads these two old guys to the inspiration that drives them to take one final stand and do something important before they die. It's this unexpected emotional weight that makes Bubba Ho-tep more than just a wildly fun time.

Of course, this delightfully twisted movie simply wouldn't work without the wonderful performances from Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. The chemistry between them and the witty dialogue they exchange is priceless. Davis is a pure delight, but this is ultimately Campbell's show. While the Ash character in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies will probably always be considered Campbell's definitive role, his deeply human (and deeply funny) performance in Bubba Ho-tep ranks as his finest work to date. He was born to play Elvis. The role could have easily been reduced to a cheap and mocking caricature, but Campbell -- buried under a thick layer of makeup -- turns an elderly Elvis with a bum hip into a beautifully developed character who elicits pity, at first, then eventually gains our respect and, finally, our heartfelt admiration. Hail to the king, baby.

Review published 10.10.2002.

Read the Q&A with Bruce Campbell & Don Coscarelli.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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