Bubba Ho-Tep
Region 1 Edition

Starring: Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis
RRP US$27.98
Available 25 May 2004

Er. OK. Now, where do I start. It's like this. Elvis really isn't dead. He did a life swap with an impersonator, you see, and has ended up as an inmate in a Texan nursing home. And JFK isn't dead either. In fact, he's in the same Godawful institution. But he's been dyed black and looks uncannily like Ossie Davis, the man who gave the eulogy for Martin Luther King. Then, there's one other unannounced undead guest. He's an Egyptian mummy with a penchant for cowboy outfits and is sucking out the souls of the pensioners. Well, at least that explains the title...

Take the plot. Take the title. Take the fact that Elvis is played by Bruce Campbell. And what do you think you'll get? A wild and wacky, built-to-order cult horror movie? Well, that's part of the answer, but it's also the least interesting part. Bubba Ho-Tep succeeds largely because its monster and indeed its whole set-up are only a tiny chunk of what the movie is all about.

First, it's an almost elegiac homage to Elvis, a chance for the King to get some redemption. This septuagenarian rocker is in a reflective, morbid mood, and potentially cancerous (in a place you really don't want me to spell out here). With Campbell in the role, you might expect lavishings of high camp, but instead we get a gracious, subtle performance. And that leads directly into the film's second main theme.

This is a movie about respect for the old. It's often wistful, perhaps occasionally overly sentimental. But as a response to a society obsessed with youth, right down to who gets to fight the villains in today's movies, its heart is in the right place. And as well as Campbell gets a 70 year-old Elvis, he's matched by Ossie Davis' African American JFK. The veteran actor brings dignity, gravitas and wit to the role. God, he makes you accept that he might, just might be JFK (OK, it helps if you're a sucker for conspiracy theories, but there you go).

None of this means that the film is slow. Indeed, it is often wickedly funny, profane and gleefully absurd. And, boy, is it different.

In a film full of happy surprises, perhaps the biggest is the director. Don Coscarelli is the man who brought us the profoundly silly schlockfest Phantasm and that flying ball. Watching how nimbly he juggles the various elements in Bubba Ho-Tep will leave you wondering whether or not he has also done some strange swap with an impersonator so he no longer has to avoid geeks looking for his signature on oversized ball bearings.

The film is not perfect. Harking back days to the great days of independent cinema (before the likes of Disney bought Miramax), this is a genuine attempt at professional but nonetheless micro-budget filmmaking and, more important, at trying to say a few things and do a few things that you just won't see elsewhere.

Bubba Ho-Tep has been building a US fan base on limited screenings and at festivals for about a year. Its appearance on DVD now gives more viewers a chance to join the club, and appropriately it's a feature-packed release.

Campbell, a veteran of innumerable Evil Dead commentaries, joins Coscarelli for the main track and on the second contributes some thoughts in character as The King. Both are fun and informative. The 'making of' documentary is also done with more care than usual. And alongside the obligatory deleted scenes, trailers and photos, you get the author of the original novella reading its first chapter, illustrated with Photoshop-ed stills from the film. It's fascinating to listen to and check out how the adaptation was worked through.

I'd love to see Bubba Ho-Tep get a UK theatrical release - anyone else remember those days when The Evil Dead could make its reputation in Blighty before conquering America? Having seen the film both with an audience and on disc, it's fair to say that this has enough going on (and for it), to be worth enjoying in both ways. Failing that, however, it's definitely time to log-on to your favourite importer.

Paul Dempsey

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