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Clemenza's Corner [Featuring Guest Reviewer Vincenzo]

  Bubba Ho-Tep
Don Coscarelli, USA, 2003
Rating: 4.0

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 anonymity.

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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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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