I’m going to get the premise of Bubba Ho-tep out of the way right now. Elvis (Bruce fucking Campbell) didn’t die, and instead lives a pretty crappy life in a nursing home. JFK(Ossie Davis) wasn’t assassinated, either, and shares a home with the King. If you know who Ossie Davis is, you might be wondering how he could be playing John F. Kennedy. Yes, Davis is black, and yes, JFK is black in this film. The unlikely duo of Elvis and JFK do battle with an undead mummy for the souls of the nursing home residents. End of synopsis. Don’t stop reading yet, please. Just hear me out. I knew of this film since its release in 2002, but it’s one that I just never got around to watching. Bruce Campbell is obviously awesome, and Don Coscarelli (director of The Beastmaster and Phantasm) has been known to turn out some entertaining stuff. But I wasn’t prepared for just how well made this film actually is. From what I’ve described so far, the camp factor would seem to be pretty fucking high, but it is, in fact, surprisingly non-existent. Instead, it’s almost like a Coen brothers film with a completely ludicrous plot.
There’s not a whole lot of set up for either Elvis or JFK. I won’t spoil the reason Elvis is in a nursing home, but it’s pretty cool how they explained that one away. JFK’s situation is a bit less interesting, as you could probably guess how he ended up there: some kind of government conspiracy that included the changing of his skin pigment. Also, he says there’s sand inside his head. So far, so good. A large chunk of the first half of the film just shows how their lives have turned out, and it would actually have worked pretty well as a straight character piece. But then the weird shit starts happening. Elvis is attacked by what I can only guess are scarab beetles, and afterwards, JFK explains that a mummy is on the loose, sucking the souls of their helpless elderly neighbors. This all sounds pretty stupid, but I swear to you that it’s done in such a way that you almost forget how ridiculous it all really is. Parts of the film remind me of Barton Fink – long, dark hallways give off a foreboding vibe, and mixed within the dramatic stance of the film is some genuinely funny dialogue.
But this being a Don Coscarelli film, it wouldn’t be complete without its fair share of horror. Once Elvis learns of the nefarious soul-sucking mummy, the character drama that took place for the last hour quickly fades, and the film turns into a man vs. monster flick. But instead of meatheads and hot chicks, the heroes are elderly, near immobile former American icons. I hate to keep bringing this up, but I really want you to believe me when I say Bubba Ho-tep is well made. The first sighting of the mummy is really cool and creepy, and while there isn’t much more to the horror aspect, what little is shown is damn good. The film wraps up with a showdown between Elvis and the mummy, and it entails one of them being set on fire, and a flying wheelchair. We’re obviously dealing with a duel of epic proportions here. But who wins the showdown, and why is there a thousand-year-old mummy rummaging through a nursing home in the first place? You’ll have to watch Bubba Ho-tep to find out, and I really, really hope you do. It’s probably the best thing Bruce Campbell has done in a long time (Evil Dead notwithstanding, and the sequels were good, campy fun), and I think you’ll be surprised at just how much the film entertains you. It’s not the be all, end all of horror movies by any stretch, but as an interesting mix of dramatic comedy and some creepy goings-on, it’s pretty unique in its own right. The only thing missing, sadly, is Bruce Campbell actually singing something by the King. But with a sequel already in the works, there’s hope still. But I can’t say the sequel will be anywhere near as good as this. It’s called Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires, so, yea. Make of that what you will. Bubba Ho-tep, on the other hand, is a fantastic little gem that totally deserves your complete and immediate attention.