Hail to the King, Baby

Cast as an aging Elvis, Bruce Campbell must do battle with the evil, undead Bubba Ho-Tep

Dec 3, 2003 at 4:00 am
In the beginning, there was The Evil Dead, and Stephen King looked down upon it and saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let there be Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, that the message of writer-director Sam Raimi be spread across the land!" So it was written; so it was done. Then those who had beheld the glory cried out, raising their hands to Heaven, "Lord, this Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell is a comedic genius! When shall the rulers of the land of Hollywood appreciate his glory?" And God (via Harry Knowles) told them it was to be a test of their faith, but lacking conviction in this divine proclamation, the chosen people proceeded to the superhighway of information, upon which they declared such musings as "bruce camble roxx...he shud star in every movie ever made, if u disagree u r gay."

Flash forward to the present day. Bruce Campbell, now mobbed by adoring hordes every time he makes a public appearance, is still not a huge A-list star, limited mostly to cameos in the likes of The Majestic and Serving Sara. To the world at large, he's still the Evil Dead guy, and most of his significant roles since, like his recurring character Autolycus on Raimi's Hercules and Xena shows, have cast him in that same role of campy action man. There's very little disputing his talent at such things, but the jury's been out on whether he actually has any range as an actor. Well, call that court to order, because believe it or not, a horror-comedy by the name of Bubba Ho-Tep, about an aging Elvis (and yes, that'd be Presley, not Costello or Mitchell) in a haunted rest home is just the film to prove that not only is Campbell a good actor -- he might just be a great one.

Go ahead and laugh. You're meant to. There are jokes aplenty, and scares, as would befit any collaboration between Campbell, writer-director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) and wacky Texan author Joe R. Lansdale, on whose short story the film is based. But as absurd as it sounds, you may actually find yourself holding back a tear or two watching the lead performances by both Campbell and Ossie Davis, the latter of whom plays "Jack," as in Kennedy, convinced that he's been lobotomized and had his skin dyed black by the CIA. No one has to be persuaded that Davis has acting chops, but Campbell amazes by utterly disappearing into his role. For at least a split second, he makes it possible to imagine that Elvis is really still around and making movies again.

It's very easy to go wrong making Elvis-themed comedies (3000 Miles to Graceland, say, or Six-String Samurai). Veering into camp -- as some would claim Elvis himself did toward the end of his life -- would be easy, especially for an actor famous for exaggerated hamminess. And certainly this is not a film to be taken entirely seriously, not when Campbell's Elvis gets lines like, "I felt my pecker flutter once, like a pigeon having a heart attack." Or when the film's villain, Bubba Ho-Tep himself (played by stuntman Bob Ivy), gets his name because he's an Egyptian mummy who dresses like a redneck and behaves like one at times, writing hieroglyphic graffiti in a men's room stall while defecating the residue of the souls he's just eaten.

But what about Elvis? Shouldn't he, by rights, be dead too? According to our protagonist, the real King got tired of fame and Colonel Parker, and he switched places with an impersonator by the name of Sebastian Haff (also Campbell). After a few years of doing tribute shows impersonating Haff impersonating him, Elvis broke a hip, fell offstage and into a coma, and now sports a possibly cancerous lump on his genitalia (mercifully, this is never shown). When the threat of the redneck mummy emerges, however -- along with Jack's friendship -- Elvis finds himself reinvigorated, able to once again walk, get an erection and even perform some rudimentary karate moves.

Coscarelli displays a skillful directorial hand, never more so than when he manages to make Bubba Ho-Tep's patently fake-looking scarab generate some shocks. The big bug looks like a wind-up toy from K-B's bargain bin, but goosed up with a bit of slime and some remote-control wings, it somehow creates a sense of danger. Meanwhile, in the dimly lit halls of the rest home at night, the sounds of an iron lung bring Darth Vader to mind. Coscarelli even throws in a Phantasm reference or two -- star Reggie Bannister gets a cameo, the mummy's hairdo resembles that of the villainous Tall Man, and the flying scarab recalls the Tall Man's killer spheres. Brian Tyler's score deserves special mention -- seemingly purloined from some missing Sergio Leone western, it adds gravitas to our aging heroes and sets up the final confrontation between an undead man and allegedly dead celebrities as a larger-than-life battle for the ages.

It's possible that Elvis and JFK may not be who they say -- like the Lone Ranger-look-alike Kemosabe (Larry Pennell), they may simply be living in a delusion. But it scarcely matters: Like Peter Pan never wanting to grow up because it would mean never hearing stories, or the Rugrats babies' flights of fantasy, or Shakespeare's description of old age as second childhood, Elvis and JFK are in their own way like kids in the sandbox, with an imaginary world that matters more than the drab reality that boring adults are incapable of seeing past. As in the Oscar-nominated animated short Das Rad (currently touring the nation as part of Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge's traveling festival of animation), the slowed-down perspective of a senior citizen is conveyed via subjective shots of Elvis viewing everything in fast-motion.

A poignant look at old age may not be what the average Evil Dead fan is after, but they can rest assured that Campbell has plenty of wisecracks herein that they can latch onto. More important, perhaps, is the fact that those who may not even be familiar with Sam Raimi may wander in and discover an actor hitherto unknown beyond the cult circuit. The mention of a potential sequel at the tail end of the credits is probably just another gag, but the fact that it engenders even the tiniest spark of hope for further Elvis adventures is proof enough that the filmmakers have solidly scored.