A clever idea remains funny for a while but is done in by some supernatural mumbo-jumbo in “Bubba Ho-Tep,” a mismatched marriage of offbeat character study and unimaginative horror riffs. Most compelling element by far is Bruce Campbell’s inspired performance as a nursing home patient who insists he is the real Elvis Presley. Don Coscarelli’s small-scaled picture has enough salable elements to encourage an enterprising distrib to get behind it, and fans of the longtime director-star combo — not to mention that large percentage of the population that believes Elvis is still alive — could turn out in sufficient numbers to make the film a modest theatrical success before it moves on to a more prosperous afterlife in homevid.
Central premise of the script — What if Elvis and JFK were still living and hiding out in an old folks’ home? — is the most intriguing thing here. Such an idea could be taken in a hundred different directions by as many dramatists. Unfortunately, Coscarelli, working from a short story by cult scribe Joe R. Lansdale, has chosen to attach the conceit to a meaningless chunk of folderol about a mummy stalking the rest home in order to suck the souls of the inhabitants, hence the titular Pharaonic family name Ho-Tep.
But that comes later. At the outset, pic presents an aging, despondent “Elvis” who has been laying low for years, having switched identities with the best Elvis impersonator back in the ’70s in order to drop out for a bit. But when his substitute suddenly died, the “real” Elvis missed his chance to regain his former life, so here he is in Mud Creek, Texas, coping with bedpans and inedible food, watching his roommates die on him and wondering, “How did my plans go so wrong?”
Immediately, one is taken in by Campbell’s total persuasiveness, not only as a deluded imposter but as a plausible Elvis himself; credibly aged, with graying sideburns and sporting large silver-framed shades, Campbell nails the King’s honeyed vocal quality and creates a man who is so disdainful of the nurses and others who don’t buy his story that one is readily inclined to go along with his fantasy just for fun.
More outrageous, literally on the face of it, is a black patient, Jack (Ossie Davis), who claims he is President John F. Kennedy. His neat room is festooned with photographs and scale models relating to the 1963 assassination, and it is Jack who first tips Elvis off to the presence of an Egyptian threat at the rest home.
While some good acting remains, introduction of the mummy plot basically derails the film at about the 45-minute point, and the silly climax, in which Elvis and JFK battle the ragged ancient apparition and have to burn it not once but twice, is so rote and generic that it could have come out of any ordinary horror film.
Pic finally reps a blown opportunity, but Campbell’s Elvis stands as one of the very best screen interpretations of the King seen thus far, even if he’s arguably not even playing the real thing.
End credits promise — or threaten, according to one’s disposition — a follow-up: “Bubba Nosferatu.”