Hail to the King

Local B-movie daddy gives us campy candy.

Recently the mainstream cinema market has suffered a tidal wave of blockbuster bullshit — films that insult the viewer with their formulaic triteness and cost more than the gross domestic product of your average Third World country to produce. Of the last five films I’ve seen in a theater, each was unabashedly awful, all focused on comically unrealistic special effects and explosion scenes, the plot a casual afterthought.

Thank ye gods for Bubba Ho-Tep.

This little cinematic jewel will probably not make a blip on the mainstream radar, but it’s the most unique and charmingly quirky film released in recent memory. The special effects are cheap, the characters are fleshed out, and the film actually treats its viewers as intelligent beings capable of sharing an inside joke. What a novel concept.

Royal Oak native Bruce Campbell, the king of B-movies, plays the King himself in what may be the king of all B-movies. See, Elvis didn’t really die in 1977, but switched places with an impersonator to escape the trappings of fame — so we’ve got Elvis impersonating an Elvis impersonator. After a tragic accident yields a broken hip, Elvis winds up in a decaying Texas convalescent home, where, robbed of all dignity and passion for life, he waits to slowly die. His only buddy is Jack (Ossie Davis), an elderly black man who believes he’s JFK — the government staged his death, stole his brain, dyed him black and tucked him away in the home.

After a series of spooky events descend on the home, it becomes clear an ancient evil has been awakened, and Elvis and JFK join forces to fight a soul-sucking mummy who’s ticking off the elderly residents one by one.

So, it’s Elvis and JFK vs. the mummy, and every minute is a wild, bizarre romp. But despite its utterly ludicrous premise, the film manages to create some truly poignant commentaries on the indignities of growing old in our society. Campbell turns in possibly the best performance of his career, and manages to be both gut-bustingly funny and quietly moving. His graying Elvis is not just an old man aging gracelessly in a sequined jumpsuit, but a disgraced wash-up desperately reaching for one last breath of life. Davis plays it straight, and damn near steals the show.

The one-liners roll steadily, and there are delightfully whimsical touches (the mummy scrawls bathroom graffiti in hieroglyphics which roughly translates to, “Cleopatra does the nasty”) that are interspersed with bits of comedy, horror, action and drama. It’s a tornado of cinematic genres, and somehow it works beautifully. It was also done on an extremely low budget. Rumor has it the funding was so low the filmmakers couldn’t even afford to pay for the rights to use an Elvis tune, which explains why Campbell never actually launches into one of the King’s signature songs.

Based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, the film is written and directed by Don Coscarelli, the man responsible for Phantasm, one of the most bizarre horror flicks ever made. Coscarelli does a masterful job of blending genres and casting a moody, dark feel. And it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Campbell playing the role of Elvis. Campbell rocketed to cult-movie fame as Ash, the arrogant and bumbling hero of the Evil Dead movies, a trio of films that mixed horror with slapstick comedy. Bubba Ho-Tep is not so much of a stretch, but unlike his Evil Dead rompings, Campbell appears eager to show his age a bit, shed his image as the dashing cad and truly embrace the chance to flex his acting chops.

One Los Angeles film critic hailed Bubba Ho-Tep as the best film ever made; and it’s easy to imagine the casual viewer declaring it the worst. This is not a film for the uninitiated; it’s bizarre, choppy, silly, heartwarming and hopelessly cheesy all at once. But for those who are willing to walk into the theater with an open mind and an appreciation for the abnormal, Bubba Ho-Tep delivers the goods. The most distinctive film of the year, hands down.


Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected].