Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bubba Ho-Tep

Bruce Campbell (he of 'Evil Dead' fame) plays the elderly Elvis Presley, atrophying in a South Texas rest home under the identity of an Elvis impersonator with whom he swapped identities. His best friend in this gloomy David Lynch-like establishment is a black man (Ossie Davis) who is convinced he's John F Kennedy. Having survived the Grassy Knoll, his identity was changed and he was put into hiding. When Campbell points out that JFK "was a white man", Davis argues with deadpan logic, "they dyed me all over - what better way to hide the truth".

Life in the rest home, bizarre as it already is, soon becomes a matter of grim survival when a revived Egyptian mummy begins stalking the corridors, sucking the souls from the residents in a most unhealthy manner. Elvis and Jack join forces to defeat their supernatural foe ("ask not what your retirement home can do for you, but what you can do for your retirement home").

On the surface, this frankly bonkers tale has everything working against it. Campbell is nobody's idea of a great actor yet, from nowhere, he conjures a complex performance of regret, self-doubt and, finally, dignity. Director Don Coscarelli, the man behind the 'Phantasm' series, has long been mired in direct-to-video hell. Writer Joe R Lansdale, on whose short story the film is based, practically defines the word 'cult'.

Perhaps it's Coscarelli's decision to play it straight that transforms what could have been prime material for Kim Newman's 'Video Dungeon' (a monthly feature in Empire magazine devoted to a trawling of lower-shelf direct-to-DVD pabulum) and molds it instead into a sombre, almost Bergmanesque character study ... that is, of course, if Bergman had been given over to no-budget special effects and tortured protagonists whose sartorial tastes begin and end with rhinestone nudie suits. Nonetheless, Coscarelli achieves a study of age, mortality, regret and the fragility of fame, all parcelled up in a B-movie plot and gift-wrapped with delicious performances from its stars.

Plus it's got a title that you just want to drop into casual conversation at the office or down the pub - 'Bubba Ho-Tep' - purely to watch your colleagues' and friends' faces twist into descended-jaw/raised-eyebrow mask of incomprehension.

'Bubba Ho-Tep'.

It's even better if you adopt a cheesy Elvis accent.

'Bubba Ho-Tep'. Thank you very much, good night.

1 comment:

James Hansen said...

This is really one of Campbell's sharpest performances, and a smart play on the monster movie. Glad you enjoyed it!