It's a film starring Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley, living in a retirement home and teamed up with a black JFK to fight a foul-mouthed redneck 3,000-year-old mummy in a cowboy outfit. Written and directed by Don "Phantasm" Coscarelli, based on a Joe R. Lansdale short story.
There's no point in writing any more, is there? I mean, you've already stopped reading because you're placing your orders for multiple copies of the DVD. Undoubtedly it's the world's all-time greatest idea for a movie, better even than "hot women get naked" because not 50% but 100% of the world's population can agree on its magnificence and besides we get an ancient Egyptian boob shot anyway during the obligatory "this is me pissing off the High Priest 3,000 years ago" flashback montage. Wow, that was a short review.
Believe it or not, I'm not even joking with the "multiple copies". To my shock, the disc I watched is a bare-bones one that doesn't have the famous Bruce Campbell commentary in which he stays in-character throughout as Elvis, for the sake of which I might yet pick up the R1 release. Depends how much it costs. And I never normally watch DVD extras, to the extent that on discovering I've bought a two-disc set I'll throw away the second disc without even putting it in the player. Not bad for a film that was made on a budget of half a million and was only going to get 32 prints struck as a limited platform release until the word got out. They couldn't even afford to include any Elvis songs, since it would have blown half the budget to license just one.
You'd never, ever guess. This film isn't low-budget good, but just plain good.
For starters it's the best Mummy movie I've seen, even if that's not saying much. Neither Universal nor Hammer ever seemed to get the hang of the genre and Brendan Fraser doesn't count. What I particularly appreciate is the way its themes come together. Despite all the fun it's obviously having with its silly high concept, this film is talking about serious issues. This is an Elvis capable of nothing but lying in bed and looking back on his mistakes, trapped in a failing body at the end of his life. They talk about the idea of a good death. The mummy's soul-eating hints at the question of what might lie on the other side for the rest of us. Somehow this movie manages to be a whole lot of fun while also raising issues that really, really aren't and eventually turning them into something a little bit beautiful.
These themes are perfect for a mummy movie, which to be about more than just culturally specific zombies must surely be talking about antiquity, age and the terrifying span of years. I like that, although I also think there might have been room to do more with that side of things. Bubba Ho-tep himself at the end of the day is just another monster, albeit a very funny one. Why the cowboy outfit? Why not? He also swears in ancient Egyptian. Of course mummies are basically rubbish. They move and fight about as fast as you would if I bandaged you up from head to toe, but that's part of what makes this the best mummy movie ever. Our heroes have wheelchairs and zimmer frames. It's a fair fight!
The effects are far better than they have any right to be given the budget, although the Big Bitch Cockroach is unconvincing. That I don't mind, but more of a headscratcher is the ending. Why should burning a mummy twice be more effective than burning it once? Well, I can rationalise that. Shoot a man once and he might get up again. Shoot him twice and you're on safer ground. There's also a throwaway mention of tana leaves. I enjoyed that tip of the hat to Universal's mummy films, even if they aren't very good.
Then there's the Coscarelli factor. The Phantasm films are all about death, burial, funeral parlours, embalming and so on. The Tall Man is an evil undertaker. As the series progresses even he gets old. Please, please, let Coscarelli make Phantasm V. There's thus something rather perfect about seeing Bubba Ho-tep from this filmmaker.
Then there's Bruce Campbell. Admittedly I'm overlooking Ossie Davis and long-time Coscarelli collaborator Reggie Bannister, but let's face it. We're all here for the Bruce. At first I wasn't sure about the wisdom of setting a film in a retirement home (yes! yes!) and then casting a lead actor in his forties. I love old actors. Look at Ossie Davis's "I know" in response to "That's my daughter" if you want to see what I'm talking about. This is one of my hobby horses, but in this case I was wrong and Bruce Campbell was perfect casting.
Firstly, he's cool. Monstrously, swaggeringly cool. You've watched the Evil Dead films, haven't you? You needed someone with that much charisma to play Elvis Presley, even a fat, wrinkly one on his deathbed with a pus-spewing growth on his penis. Secondly, his most remarkable quality as an actor isn't his knack for one-liners, but his physicality. His signature role is essentially a live-action cartoon character, as remarkable for invention and sheer energy as Jim Carrey. What he does here might have killed an actor of a more appropriate age. Geriatric karate moves. Walking his zimmer frame down a hill.
This will certainly end up being Campbell's second best remembered role, with lots of layers and some surprisingly subtle work underlaying all the fun he's obviously having. It's an Elvis impersonation, but extrapolated on another 25 years. He even looks more like the King than most real impersonators. He's portraying loneliness, pathos, humiliation and little, futile bursts of anger. He's inventing a new kind of action scene (Can Hardly Move Fu). He's on-screen almost every minute of this film, carrying it with the help of a surprisingly realistic and grounded character arc despite the wacky premise.
That's a lot to ask, but he does more than just succeed. Towards the end I was astonished to glance at the clock and see that the movie was nearly finished. I'd been convinced we were still in Act One. Obviously the credit for that is largely writer-director Don Coscarelli's, but a huge, huge chunk is Campbell's.
Its retirement home is less depressing than the real ones I've been familiar with, being populated by charming eccentrics rather than despairing mindless husks. Maybe it's different in East Texas. Something in the water, perhaps. That aside, though, it's not afraid to get cynical. The first thing in the film that happens to Elvis is that his roommate dies and some strange girl turns up to go through his things. It's the man's daughter. She'd never once come to visit. The other rest home inhabitants can be unpleasant too. There's a lot of potentially depressing material here that's treated much more honestly and yet wittily than you tend to get in these "Elvis and JFK fight a mummy in a nursing home" movies. It's real, funny and in the end uplifting.
In case you haven't guessed, I like this film. Don't get carried away, though. It's not Citizen Kane or anything. Being based on a short story, the plot is straightforward to the point of being almost lightweight and I don't even know if I'd really call it horror. It's simply taking an utterly goofball story idea and making it work by playing it straight. It takes you into a world of gaga and almost immobile coffin-dodgers telling obviously ridiculous tales... and turns them into heroes.