Bubba Ho-tep
directed by Don Coscarelli
(MGM, 2002)

Imagine that Elvis Presley got tired of fame, fortune and glamour and traded places with an Elvis impersonator -- and it was the impersonator, not Elvis, who died. Then imagine that some years later Elvis -- masquerading as the impersonator, of course -- broke his hip and ended up in the Shady Rest Convalescent Home in Mud Creek, Texas.

Then imagine he ended up in a room down the hall from a black guy who's convinced he's Jack Kennedy: that he survived the assassination, but he's been dyed black and had a bag of sand surgically implanted in his head.

Now imagine the duo discover their nursing home has been invaded by a mummy in cowboy boots, stalking the halls and sucking the souls from the bodies of Shady Rest residents.

But wait. You don't have to imagine it. Joe R. Lansdale and Don Coscarelli already have. Bubba Ho-tep is based on a Lansdale short story that was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Coscarelli then turned it into a screenplay and directed it.

In concept it's as simple as it is imaginative.

"Bubba," we are told in the opening titles, is "a male from the southern U.S." "Ho-tep" is the family name of an Egyptian pharaoh.

How these two great forces united is a little complicated, but near as Jack can figure, it happened when the remains of a mummy on a U.S. tour plunged off a bridge near Mud Creek. The spirits of mummies being what they area, it wasn't long before Ho-tep, boots and all, was sucking souls in Shady Rest.

The job of bringing this tale to life was placed squarely on the shoulders of Bruce Campbell, whose voice and moves are good enough to convince you that he and the real Elvis might have traded places. OK, once in a while he leans more toward Johnny Bravo than Elvis, but then what Elvis impersonator doesn't?

His Shady Rest co-conspirator, Jack, is played by Ossie Davis, who seems to relish a role that has nothing to do with making sense of racial integration. Davis gives his absurd character an incredible amount of dignity, even when parading around in a tweed sport coat and paisley pajamas. And watching them work together, first to uncover the mystery of the mummy, then to do all they can to stop him, is lots of fun, even when it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

If there are problems with Bubba -- and how can a movie about a mummy in cowboy boots not have at least one? -- they're not Campbell's or Davis's. They're Coscarelli's -- because often it's hard to tell where the director is going with his story.

That could be because we're never 100 percent certain if Elvis is giving us the unvarnished truth or if he's as senile as his nurse (Ella Joyce) would have us believe. Rather, the film drifts in and out of Elvis's consciousness -- and his voice-over narrative -- in ways that can easily confuse viewers, whether they're designed to or not.

Similarly, some of the jokes just don't work, in particular a running gag involving two hearse drivers (Daniel Roebuck and Daniel Schweiger) whose job it is to cart off the bodies the mummy is leaving around Shady Rest. Like much of Bubba, it's a great idea that could use sharper writing or better acting. More critically, the ending, in some ways, is more whimper than bang.

But then there are moments in which Bubba Ho-tep absolutely shines -- as when a resident (Edith Jefferson) steals a pair of glasses from a resident in an iron lung (Solange Morand), or when Jack and Elvis find hieroglyphic graffiti in the Shady Rest men's room.

And just the notion that Elvis would become an Elvis impersonator -- well, how Victor, Victoria can you get? On the whole, Bubba Ho-tep makes Men in Black look like gritty realism.

Now that takes imagination.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 18 September 2004

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