Elvis lives and so, apparently, does JFK in writer-director Don Coscarelli’s pseudo-horror indie lark, “Bubba Ho-Tep.” Based on Joe R. Lansdale’s short story, “Bubba Ho-Tep” tries ineffectually to be both a lyrical character study and a darkly satirical horror flick. As the latter, the movie demonstrates all the zeal and invention of a tired carnival act, and, in trying to mine heartfelt pathos from its depiction of two lonely curmudgeon-icons, it digs up only platitudes and schmaltz.
Bruce Campbell, something of a cult item himself and delightfully campy performer, plays a crochety, limpdicked Elvis, facing the twilight of his years in an old-age home. As “Bubba” tells it, Elvis, tired of his fame, switched places with an impersonator decades back and took to a more anonymous life on the Elvis-impersonator circuit. An injury, though, has landed him in these drably lit, antiseptic surroundings, rhapsodizing about erections and other bygone triumphs, nursing regrets about a wife and daughter left far behind. Elvis finds a sympathizer in a fellow resident (Ossie Davis), a black man convinced he’s Jack Kennedy.
“Bubba” starts off tantalizingly enough with black-and-white newsreel footage reporting the discovery of a cursed Egyptian mummy. That opening holds such lip-smacking promise of thrills to come that it’s a real letdown as Coscarelli’s script devotes much of its subsequent energies to Elvis’ plodding backstory, and to the derivative characters and circumstances surrounding his life at the home. We get the saucy nurse, the flinty doctor, the buffoonish hearse drivers, medicinal penile gel and even ruminations of what kind of shit a mummy might produce. This is all meant to be outrageously funny, but it isn’t quite, because “Bubba” never achieves that unfettered, freefall zaniness that it desperately needs to thrive and distinguish itself. Indeed, its script is too square and well-mannered, choosing instead to sentimentalize its offbeat characters—a fatal mistake since he never develops them beyond the realm of well-trodden clichés. He wastes precious storytime on tiresome jibes about Elvis’ once all-conquering penis, his schmaltzy ponderings over his past, and Jack’s own paramoid musings about Castro.
Once the mummy—an ill-developed creature himself, given to foppish headwear—lets loose inside the old-age home, “Bubba” still doesn’t wake up. Apart from a pitched battle scene between Elvis and a monstrous, winged beetle, the action scenes are predictably staged, leading to an appropriately limp finale. The Campbell-Davis pairing is inpired, but Coscarelli’s plotting and characterizations are too unadventurous for their dynamic to amount to much. Similarly, he peppers his movie with flash cuts and other run-of-the-mill shock tactics to distract us from the flimsy, half-baked goings-on. Still, if seeing Campbell in a bouffant wig and sporting the King’s sneer and swagger does it for you, then “Bubba Ho-Tep’s” charms—such as they are—may not be all lost.
Written/Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy