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[Featuring Guest Reviewer
Don Coscarelli, USA, 2003
Posted: December 31, 2003
We all have these idealized visions of what our best years were like, am I
right? If you're like me, you're still living in that perfect golden age. But
even if you've never taken Steven Seagal
in a best-three-out-of-five arm wrestling match, you remember that magical
period in your past when you could do no wrong, when the sun shone on you and
you alone, when youth was in flower and the world was your oyster.
If you're Elvis Presley, The King of Rock 'n' Roll, living out your "golden
years" in a dark, depressing retirement home in Mud Creek, Texas, you'd think
that that vision of your best years would be of life as what we've come to call
"The Thin Elvis" -- when The King was still a rebel helping to usher in a new
era, rather than the bloated, cover-song-singing Vegas-act mainstream attraction
he later became. But it ain't necessarily so. For Elvis, the best years of his
life came after he made a secret deal to switch places with an Elvis
impersonator, leaving behind the trap of fame to live out his years in precious
Leastways, that's the idea in Bubba Ho-Tep, a low-budget horror comedy
from Phantasm director Don Coscarelli, based on
a story by the masterful Joe R.
Lansdale. In the film, Elvis (played for laughs by B-movie king Bruce
Campbell) has landed in a nursing home, and he's finally come face-to-face with
the very thing he'd contrived to escape so many years ago: The indignity of
aging less than gracefully.
Now, it doesn't matter whether you believe that Campbell's character is the
real Elvis, or just an impersonator who can't get himself free of the fantasy.
Either way you choose to interpret it, the guy's stuck with the same fate:
Wasting away his final years in a dingy, uncaring facility where very few people
seem to care, not only about his true identity but about him as a person.
(Reminds me of Clemenza's status at Shaking Through, but that's another
story.) To add insult to freakin' injury, his only remaining friend is a creaky
old African-American (Ossie Davis) who thinks he's John F. Kennedy! (Instead of
killing him, his conspirators have "dyed" him, dooming the dynamic young
president to a life of obscurity.) How's anyone supposed to take you seriously
when you hang out with a nutjob like that? Life just keeps rubbing The King's
face in it: He doesn't matter.
But Elvis does matter. Heck, if for no other reason, yours truly was
conceived to the strains of "Hound Dog," at least as my sainted mother tells it.
Despite the bitter shell The King's life has become, it's still his life,
and he's determined to hang on to it. Especially when a mysterious mummy
begins preying on the home's weakened residents, sustaining itself on the life
energies of society's forgotten and ignored senior citizens.
Bubba Ho-Tep explains, for those who really want to know, just how it
is that an Egyptian mummy ends up feeding on the infirm in a backwater Texas
burg. But this isn't the kind of flick where the "how" matters all that much.
What matters is that Elvis chooses to fight back against this final indignity --
and THAT, my friends, is what Bubba Ho-Tep is all about. The King
gets his groove back. He kicks some serious mummy ass, as well as a senior
citizen with a bad hip can be expected to, even if he can't do his patented Kung
Fu moves so well anymore.
But no matter! He is The King! He opens a can of Tennessee Ass-Whuppin' on
that carpetbagging Texas mummy, much as I was once forced to do on Jeff "The
Perfect Weapon" Speakman. And in the process fends off the jackal-jaws of death,
of dishonor, of feeble nursing-home living, for another day! For those of us who
love and cherish The King, we get the ending we've always wanted! The fat, sad
figure of "In The Ghetto" and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches is, in
effect, vanquished by the vital, young-at-heart Elvis we all yearn for -- the
one we all, deep down, wish to be! This wrinkled monarch of rock 'n' roll does
not go gently into that good night! No, my friend, he rages -- rages!!!
-- against the dying of the light!
And that, basically, is the whole film. True, Bubba Ho-Tep could have
benefited from some padding, a subplot, anything: It's basically just
Elvis and Black Jack against this undead soul-sucker, and even though the match
is an uneven as Tom Cruise and The Rock, the good guys prevail. As B-movies go,
it's funny (Campbell gets in some good one-liners), it's relatively short, and
it does its job with no muss and no fuss. The fact that it serves as an inspired
metaphor for the struggle to survive is icing on the cake. It was pretty much
lost on my date, a cute, surgically enhanced hairdresser-slash-topless model
named Belinda, who thought it was a little gross ("Why did it have to have all
those old people?") and not scary enough.
But Bubba Ho-Tep isn't really a horror film (although the flying
beetle-thingie was sufficiently gross enough for Belinda to squirm into my manly
embrace). You pay your eight bucks, you laugh at Bruce Campbell fighting a
mummy, you get all warm and fuzzy, you go home. On that score, the film takes
care of business. And if you want it, there's an extra layer there, one that
exults in the sweet elixir of living, and delivers unto us a fitting, if a bit
too campy, version of the Elvis we wish we still had walking among us. The King,
wherever he is, would be proud.
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