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Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis, as Elvis and JFK!

Bubba Ho-Tep poster

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Bubba Ho-Tep
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Bubba Ho-Tep

cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Reggie Bannister, Ella Joyce, and Larry Pennell

director: Don Coscarelli

92 minutes (R) 2002 MGM NTSC VHS retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
Cult-favourite genre director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm quartet, The Beastmaster), inspired by Joe R. Lansdale's award-winning short story, also scripted this one-of-a-kind indie horror-comedy, far wittier and meatier than any odd pairing Abbott and Costello made with Universal Pictures monsters back in the day. It also helps that the filmmaker got possibly the greatest of undeservedly underrated, cult favourite, B-picture actors, Bruce Campbell to star in what turns out to be his finest performance ever.
   Bubba Ho-Tep, a decidedly odd and wacky project making the limited distribution rounds of the art house circuit, deserves the wide audiences it probably won't get, for its inspired quirkiness proved too befuddling to get the backing of the narrow-minded bean-counters in the major studios.
   The film opens with a newsreel style prologue about how, 3,000 odd years ago, a relative of Pharaoh Amen Ho-Tep was mummified, interred and cursed, remaining undiscovered until the early 1900s. Then, archaeologists unearthed this exciting find and toured it to museums all around the United States until the prize exhibit was mysteriously stolen and then lost in a travel accident somewhere in the wilds of the Lone Star state.
   Cut to present-day Mud Creek, Texas, and the Shady Rest Nursing Home where an aged, greying, Elvis Presley, king of rock 'n' roll, (brilliantly portrayed by Bruce Campbell), resides while recovering from a broken hip and a prolonged comatose condition. In voiceover narration and in dialogue, Elvis reveals how disturbing dreams, memories of his younger days and regrets constantly torment him along with guilt, remorse and depression. We come to learn about Elvis' past in great emotional detail - from his motivations for exchanging identities with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff (also played by Bruce Campbell) to the unfortunate stage tumble and subsequent injuries that forced him to end up in Mud Creek obscurity. Elvis' sorrow over leaving his wife and daughter; his misery and obsessive anxiety about a possibly cancerous growth on his pecker and the gooey ointment treatments for same; his enduring his life story not being believed by nearly everyone; and his suffering the particularly grating, patronising attitudes of his nurse (Ella Joyce) and the Rest Home Administrator (Reggie Bannister) - all make the protagonist totally sympathetic and believable, especially because Campbell's speech, body language and make-up synergistically create a perfect persona filled with humanity.
   Equally fine in the role of Elvis' best buddy and the only person who believes he is 'The King', we find Ossie Davis wonderfully playing Jack, an elderly black gentleman convinced he's JFK (!) with his assassination faked and his appearance altered because of a vast conspiracy. Davis brings such a deft mixture of affable conviction and gravitas to his character's good-natured nuttiness, that the performance rings true.
   Thus, when bizarre-looking, fierce, abnormally giant beetles infest the Shady Rest foreshadowing the swiftly following arrival of a scary, skulking entity that causes a rash of fatalities among the geriatric residents - Jack becomes alarmed. Soon Jack himself gets attacked and, fortunately surviving thanks to judiciously wielding his cane, he convinces Elvis to aid him. How the senior pair sleuth out the nature of their foe by examining clues (from strange hieroglyphs scrawled on bathroom stalls to information in dusty tomes) and by wild speculations; and how they discover a new zeal and purpose in living by heroically deciding to save their fellow inmates from having their souls sucked out through their 'arseholes' by a mummy sporting a cowboy hat and matching boots - makes for a hilarious, exciting, and differently daft film.
   Don Coscarelli's deft direction and clever script loaded with witty lines and heartfelt subtext about the sadness and loneliness of aged folks abandoned in nursing homes, makes Bubba Ho-Tep an unusual cross-genre treat with more depth than usual. The film makes a virtue of its low budget by focusing on enthralling its audience through character development, balancing humour and suspense and emotional veracity rather with just enough visual gimmickry to do the tale-telling job.
   Brian Tyler's excellent, eclectic, atmospheric score certainly helps, complementing the superb performances (including supporting player Larry Pennell as the geriatric masked, scene-stealing Kemosabe). Coscarelli makes good use of flashbacks to detail telling scenes from Elvis' life and to explain the Mummy's origins, the latter in some surprisingly historically accurate-looking, all-too-brief images. Bubba Ho-Tep himself (Bob Ivy) makes for a suitably creepy menace, paradoxically absurdly cheesy and chilling at the same time - attitude, make-up and special effects that effectively parodies and embodies the horror genre simultaneously.
   The film Bubba Ho-Tep will be ecstatic viewing for Bruce Campbell fans, Coscarelli admirers, genre buffs in general and any adventurous soul willing to try seeing a refreshingly different feature that offers: thrills; chills; genuinely poignant emotion; pop-culture delight in its fond spoofing of the tropes of heartland Americana; and lots of laugh-out-loud moments. Let's hope that the production itself will find its audience. Meanwhile, Bubba Ho-Tep remains one of the most memorably weird, warped and fun experiences ever to stalk the byways of cinema.

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