“Old Elvis and black JFK fighting a mummy in an East Texas nursing home.”
That should be all you need to know about the incredible awesomeness that is Bubba Ho-Tep. But since this is a 300-word column, a little elaboration might be necessary. After all, while cult and horror fans will be out the door in search of a copy by the next paragraph, some readers will need a harder push to give a movie as wacky and over-the-top as Bubba Ho-Tep a chance.
So here goes: Elvis (B-movie king Bruce Campbell, in a role he was born for) didn’t die after one too many peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches — that guy was an impersonator with whom the real Elvis switched identities in the ’70s. Now a septuagenarian, Elvis is living his miserable last days with no one believing he is the real King — and his only friend is an elderly African-American man (Davis) who claims to be JFK. When a thousands-year-old mummy (christened “Bubba Ho-Tep” by Elvis) shows up to suck out the souls of the rest-home residents, only a king and a former president can stop him.
OK, so it sounds bonkers. (It is.) But even more crazy was the decision by director Don Coscarelli to treat Texan writer Joe Lansdale’s high-camp premise like it’s The Notebook. The nursing-home scenes are depressingly bleak (if Bubba Ho-Tep doesn’t kill the patients, Elvis observes, then time and indifference surely will), the scarab-beetle fight is a perfect blend of suspense and slapstick, and the final showdown is tense and scary.
While Elvis and JFK get plenty of laughs (Elvis: “No offense, Jack, but President Kennedy was a white man.” JFK: “They dyed me this color! That’s how clever they are!”), they’re never the butt of the joke. Campbell and Davis (in one of his final roles) portray their characters with a surprising amount of dignity and grace, and if you can look past the low-budget scarab puppets and rubbery mummy suit, you’ll find that Bubba Ho-Tep is a potent parable about aging, friendship, and mortality.
(Just in case that last sentence lost the B-movie horror fans: Bubba Ho-Tep sucks souls through his victims’ assholes. Go watch it!)