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Elvis, JFK & the Undead? Whoa, 'Bubba'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2004; Page C05

How could you not be intrigued by a movie in which an aging Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) and an old duffer (Ossie Davis) who's convinced he's JFK find their East Texas rest home invaded by soul-sucking evil from ancient Egypt?

Elvis, as any avid reader of the Weekly World News knows, has been extremely busy ever since he "died" in August 1977. America's secular messiah has been seen leaving buildings ever since. So it should come as no surprise to learn that the dead guy they found in Graceland that sad day was an impersonator. The real Elvis, well, he's in the rest home now. And his pelvis is giving him terrible trouble.

Looking to take a break from the daily (pelvic) grind, Elvis (Bruce Campbell) trades places with an impersonator in the sleazily enjoyable "Bubba Ho-tep." (Scott Libolt -- Silver Sphere Corp.)

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Here's how it all went down -- at least in writer-director Don Coscarelli's sleazily enjoyable "Bubba Ho-tep." Looking to take some serious downtime early in his heyday, it seems the real Elvis made a deal with Sebastian, the aforementioned impersonator, who is a dead ringer for the King. They switched roles temporarily, "Prince and the Pauper"-style. Sebastian played Elvis for the world. And the real Elvis became his own impersonator, performing in a variety of dives until he injured his hip and went into a coma.

Meanwhile, the pill-popping Sebastian entered that rhinestone castle in the sky, leaving our real-deal Elvis unable to reclaim his old gig. After all, who would believe his story?

Well, one person did. That would be fellow nursing home resident Jack Kennedy.

And now some kind of undead freak is -- well, getting into this Egyptian plot business would take away even more surprises. Suffice it to say, two American legends find themselves dealing with a force that -- for reasons that emerge later -- is killing off folks in the old home. It's up to our weathered heroes to save the day.

Coscarelli, best known for such cult B-movie flicks as "Phantasm," "Survival Quest" and "The Beastmaster," has created a leisurely paced, subtly funny, though verbally crude chamber piece. (Credit should go to Joe R. Lansdale for the short story that birthed this whole conceit.) Unfortunately, it doesn't build and build so much as gradually dwindle. In the end, what keeps it going is not the story but the delicious relationship between Elvis and JFK.

B-movie cult actor Campbell, although given to gross descriptions about his physical ailments here, may well be the best (and certainly the seediest) Elvis ever seen on screen. For one thing, he doesn't seem to be trying to play Elvis. He just is. (The more reverent Elvis worshipers among us should probably stay away from this movie.)

As for Davis, a jewel of a character actor, he makes a rather charming counterbalance. And you almost find yourself believing that this gray-haired guy might really be -- naaah. Together, these codgers give surprising gravitas to a wacky notion. It's just too bad that wacky notion needs its own rest home before the end.

Bubba Ho-tep (92 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for extremely graphic obscenity, nudity and gruesome violence.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company