Bubba Ho-Tep

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Starring Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. Rated 14A.

Bubba Ho-Tep is a horror-comedy about two elderly men at a rundown retirement home--one supposedly Elvis Presley, the other claiming to be John F. Kennedy--who battle a mummy that sucks souls from victims' arseholes. Who would have thought that such a far-out B-movie premise could result in this sharply directed, wonderfully acted, and laugh-out-loud-funny tale of courage and redemption?

Three people are most responsible for Bubba Ho-Tep's surprising success. First off would be hard-nosed East Texas author Joe R. Lansdale, who wrote the offbeat novelette on which the film is based, publishing it in his 1994 short-story collection Writer of the Purple Rage. The director who brings Lansdale's singular vision to life is genre vet Don Coscarelli, who was in his early 20s when his feverish sphere-of-death horror flick Phantasm brought him cult acclaim in 1979. And Bruce Campbell is the actor who delivers the goods with a career-topping performance as geezer Elvis. His subtly nuanced take on the tragic superstar brings Campbell full circle from the Three Stooges ­like pratfalls of his Evil Dead flicks. The talents of Lansdale, Coscarelli, and Campbell converge brilliantly in Bubba Ho-Tep, although thanks to the lack of foresight from any major Hollywood studio, that fact won't be widely known until this overlooked gem becomes a hot property on video.

All the action, except flashbacks, takes place at the Mud Creek Rest Home in East Texas, where the decrepit residents start getting attacked by huge scarab beetles. Elvis's battle with one such bug is particularly hilarious, especially when he skewers it on a fork, holds it up, and declares with a curly-lipped sneer: "Never, ever, fuck with the King!" Soon after, Bubba Ho-Tep himself appears, shuffling about in cowboy boots and Stetson hat, sniffing around for stinky souls to steal. That's when Elvis joins forces with the black JFK, played by charismatic Ossie Davis, and the two previously downtrodden codgers find new reason to embrace life in their quest to vanquish the ancient evil.

It's the powerful bond between these two characters, much more than the creature effects or lowbrow humour, that screenwriter Coscarelli focuses on. His words, many of which are respectfully lifted directly from Lansdale's original tale, are given resonance by the evocative, guitar-based score of Brian Tyler (Six-String Samurai). After experiencing Bubba Ho-Tep's winning mix of pathos and absurdity, fans of contemporary horror-comedies will think twice when the next Scary Movie comes along.