Bubba Ho-Tep. Vitagraph Films presents a film written and directed by Don Coscarelli. Based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale. Running time: 92 minutes. Rated R (for language, some sexual content and brief violent images). Starring Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Bob Ivy.

Bubba Ho-Tep

Bubba Ho-Tep is a film about Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) and a black John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) fighting a soul-sucking mummy (Bob Ivy) in a rest home. It is also a supremely touching film about growing older, dealing with mistakes we have made in the past, and friendship. As surprising as that sounds, it is absolutely true.

Contrary to popular belief, Elvis is not dead. The man found in that bathroom stall, and the man in Elvis's grave, is an imposter. Tired of the life of fame, Elvis swapped places with his best impersonator. Performing at an "Elvis" tribute concert, he tripped of the stage, broke his hip, fell into a coma, and was placed in a Texas rest home. At this home, a mummy Elvis dubs Bubba Ho-Tep is walking around the halls at night and sucking the souls out of the elderly. Elvis teams up with "JFK" to destroy the evil.

Elvis narrates Bubba Ho-Tep in a sad, nostalgic way that actually turns out to be rather touching. He expresses regret over neglecting his daughter and treating Priscilla poorly. In one particularly memorable moment, Elvis realizes that all the bad things in his life were not caused by others, but by his own actions. A real effort is made to fully develop Elvis into more than just the caricature one would expect from this kind of movie. JFK is a little underdeveloped, undoubtedly because of Bubba Ho-Tep's rather short running length, but not egregiously so.

Much has been made about Bubba Ho-Tep's serious side, but only because that's surprising considering the rest of the film. At heart it is a bizarre comedy, an inevitable cult classic. And it succeeds at comedy as well as any other film this year; the wisecracks, one-liners, Elvis jokes, and numerous other morsels of humor are hilarious almost without exception. But the humor is also incisive and bitingly satiric, lampooning horror movie conventions as it follows them.

Bruce Campbell gives one of the best male performances of the year as Elvis. Giving what is perhaps the greatest impersonation of the musician ever committed to film, Campbell also mixes in a deeply felt pathos so that we really care about the character. There is a bit of Ash, Campbell's Evil Dead hero too, as he fights off the mummy with his walker. Ossie Davis, a serious actor (not like Campbell), is obviously having a great deal of fun, and his joy is infectious.

Made on a miniscule budget, Bubba Ho-Tep doesn't really work as a horror film, but I don't think it's supposed to. Instead it is an amazingly even film, effortlessly balancing hilarious comedy and poignant drama into a cohesive whole. The last moments of the film are hauntingly touching, matching eighty percent of 2003's other releases for sheer power. Strange, I know, but trust me on this - I felt a little choked up at the end of the film, and I certainly didn't expect to, not in a movie as odd (an understatement) this. Not only is Bubba Ho-Tep one of the most surprising films of 2003, it's also quite simply one of the best.

© 2003 Matt Noller