2002. Directed by Don Coscarelli.
A surprisingly somber rumination on what it means to become old and discarded, Bubba Ho-Tep is a reckless horror comedy that coasts on the phenomenal performances of Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis.
Having abandoned his life of fame by switching identities with an impersonator, Elvis has wound up alone and outside the limelight in a crumbling retirement home. He's joined by a host of other seniors, including a black man who claims to be JFK. When the residents begin to die under mysterious circumstances, The King and JFK begin to investigate and discover that an ancient Egyptian mummy is feeding off the life force of the easy to kill elderly. With no one on the staff willing to believe them, the geriatric duo decide to take matters into their own hands.
Bruce Campbell gives the performance of his career as Elvis. What begins as a vapid and cynical impersonation of Presley is quickly revealed to be a layered meditation on the loneliness of old age and the consequences for leading an unfulfilling life. Campbell presents Elvis's twilight years as a solitary prison constructed from decades of celebrity debauchery. He takes a role that could have easily been overdone with thoughtless caricature and uses a cocktail of self deprecation, hilarious overconfidence, and simple poetry to filter Bubba Ho-Tep's various concepts through Elvis's ordeal, presenting the audience with an unexpectedly deep film experience.
Campbell is supported by the great Ossie Davis as JFK. It would be easy to say that Campbell's performance is the entire movie, but it simply would not be possible without Davis's smile inducing turn. Using his considerable comedic chops and dramatic intensity, Davis's role is one of the most unique in his expansive career. Davis portrays JFK as a true believer in his (possible) psychosis who is also the brains of the pair. While Elvis spends his time wallowing, JFK embraces his veneration and uses his considerable wit to track down the unholy abomination. Davis and Campbell together present as a yin and yang of the senior condition and it's this dichotomy that puts Bubba Ho-Tep over the top. They are supported by television legend Larry Pennell, who's final scene as Kemosabe is easily Bubba Ho-Tep's strongest sequence.
Coscarelli's screenplay, from Joe Lansdale's novel, transcends genres by taking an iconic rockstar and peeling away the veneer of youth. This is the end of Elvis's story, and Bubba Ho-Tep wastes no time communicating this point. From the first Vaseline covered scene to the perfectly tranquil finale, the story is always within the bounds of the world Coscarelli has designed. The mummy adopts a cowboy costume as it hunts it's slow moving prey through tacky painted hallways and dirty bathrooms. At first this choice seems odd, even silly, but in the context of the message, it makes perfect sense. From the musty wallpaper to JFK's overly slow moving wheelchair, everything is used up and forgotten, just like the illusion of the romantic Western that Coscarelli constantly eludes to. Brian Tyler's catchy and sneakily poignant score supports this notion, with the emotional scene of Elvis and JFK (One with a walker, one in an automated chair) slowly moving towards their destiny being a perfect example. Tyler's western notes conjure memories of long lost heroes in dusters facing down the villain in black, while the action on screen displays what those heroes' eventual fates almost certainly were.
Available now for digital rental, Bubba Ho-Tep is one of those films that is many things at once. It's a surprise because not only because is it a very good B movie, it's also culturally relevant, and even more so, it's emotional resonant. There are ideas presented in this movie that initially make you laugh, but as the story continues, they begin to discomfort with their matter of fact presentation in this charming, but tragic horror comedy. If you're looking for a Halloween film that is light on the gore and heavy on the comedy, all while presenting the topic of death in a semi-serious tone, give this one a try.