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Ditching Marilyn to fight a mummy

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Anyone remember those old What If comics Marvel used to make that wondered how things might have turned out if certain scenarios had played out differently? I only have two that survived my childhood ("What if Elektra hadn't died?" and "What if the Thing and the Beast continued to mutate?"), but the idea still seems kind of cool. It would work pretty well on the screen, too, and we've already seen one "what if" movie in the last few years. The Emperor's New Clothes told the story of an exiled Napoleon swapping identities with an average Joe so he could slip back into Paris and take back his kingdom.

            It'd be a blast to see something like "What if Tom Cruise made a movie where he didn't play a rude, cocky, self-centered, petulant, successful jerk who is forced to re-examine his life when something surprising happens?" or "What if Ron Howard left Dr. Seuss's books the hell alone?" but for now, we'll have to make do with the even more imaginative "what if" situation in Bubba Ho-Tep (opens Friday, December 5, at the Little), a low-concept, low-budget horror-comedy with enough originality to put Scary Movie 3 and Freddy vs. Jason to shame. Admittedly, that's not too difficult a task, but even Bubba's one-line premise is witty enough to stand out amidst run-of-the-mill dreck like The Missing and Gothika.

            Bubba's simple setup is this: What if Elvis and John F. Kennedy were still alive and living in the same retirement home, battling a soul-sucking mummy who preys on the vulnerable residents? That's crazy enough to lure the midnight-movie crowd out of the house. But the casting of cult icon Bruce Campbell as Elvis is enough to turn those same folks into a pack of Romero-esque zombies, ready to chew up the brains of anyone who gets between them and whichever theater is lucky enough to run the film. (The Little reports they started getting calls to "pre-order" tickets from people as far away as Syracuse and Toronto once they booked Bubba over a month ago).

            Campbell, a frequent guest in movies made by the Coen brothers and Sam Raimi, and forever known and loved as Ash Williams in the latter director's Evil Dead trilogy, plays the King, who has spent the last few decades in a Mud Creek, Texas, retirement home. But nobody knows he's Elvis. See, back in 1976, he got tired of the insanity of being Elvis, and decided to swap identities with one of his best impersonators. Trouble is, that impersonator died of a drug overdose a year later, leaving the real Elvis stuck living the life of one of many trailer-trash copycats.

            Elvis, who everyone thinks is Sebastian Haff, spent years in a coma after falling off the stage and breaking a hip (doing an impersonation of himself!). Now 70, he lies in bed and thinks about never getting to know Lisa Marie. He also wonders if Priscilla would take him back in his condition, which, considering the potentially cancerous growth on the tip of his long-dormant pecker, seems rather unlikely.

            Elvis's adventures begin with what he thinks is an infestation of Texas-sized cockroaches, but it becomes clear that the creatures are merely a harbinger of an even greater evil. Ossie Davis plays a fellow resident who swears he's JFK (his skin was dyed after the failed assassination attempt, natch) and thinks what eventually turns out to be a soul-hungry mummy (Bob Ivy) is really Lyndon Johnson back to finish off the job.

            There really isn't much to Bubba once you get past the premise, and that is something made painfully clear when the big battle between the two elderly superstars and the soul sucker comes and goes before you even begin to appreciate it. The finale plays out exactly as you would imagine a brawl between two septuagenarians (with a walker and a motorized wheelchair) and a decrepit member of the undead might go. Elvis gets to try out both some classic lines ("Never fuck with the King!") and some of his old Kung Fu moves, though the latter are rather unsuccessful due to the broken hip and all.

            The other big drawing card in Bubba is the acting. Campbell gives what might be the best Elvis impersonation to ever be seen in a film, merely because he's not doing the "Hey, look at me! I'm playing Elvis!" thing that most actors slip into when they play the King. The movie is campy, but Campbell's performance is not, and that's a very important distinction. His Elvis is depressing and very believable. Davis's reputation and his performance give the out-there story some additional credibility, as well.

            Bubba was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, probably best known for making the wickedly cheesy four-film Phantasm series (the fifth --- Phantasm's End --- is in pre-production with a script co-written by Pulp Fiction's Roger Avary). Coscarelli, who adapted the script from a Joe R. Lansdale short story, does a good job by not stretching the very minimal premise beyond its breaking point. We'll be interviewing Coscarelli on WBER 90.5 FM's Friday Morning Show on December 5.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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