Bruce Campbell makes me laugh just looking at him. Just thinking about him. But I never thought he’d almost make me cry. And I certainly never thought he’d almost make me cry in a movie called Bubba Ho-Tep, which is the funniest title of the year, hands down, except for Gigli. It’s not the funniest movie of the year, but, rather surprisingly for a movie called Bubba Ho-Tep, it’s not trying to be the funniest movie of the year.
This is kinda confounding for a girl geek going into a movie called Bubba Ho-Tep and starring the geeky-hot Bruce Campbell, a girl geek who’s expecting a lot of silly gore and for Bruce to say “Groovy” or something a lot while offing the bad undead guys. But that’s okay — it’s good to have your geek boundaries challenged once in a while.
This may be the pinnacle of Campbell’s cult-serious career, which as far as I can tell encompasses only one other role so far, but I bet there’s more to come. We all know the goofy stuff he’s done — the Evil Deads and the Brisco Countys and the Tornado!s — and he’s done some straight-serious stuff, too, like on TV’s Homicide. But other than the demon he played, intensely and balefully, on The X-Files, I don’t think Campbell has taken what could have been a throwaway genre role to this point of earnest solemnity. He plays Elvis here, and that’s funny, of course — how could it not be? — but Campbell is also touchingly poignant. Who’da thunk?
He’s downright daring, actually, with his old and decidedly not-dead Elvis, who traded places with an impersonator back in the 70s… just before the fake “real” Elvis died and left the real Elvis, now stuck with the identity of “Sebastian Haff,” to die a lingering, miserable death in the most depressing nursing home you’ve ever seen, in Mud Creek, Texas. Unlikely as it sounds — considering that this is a movie called Bubba Ho-Tep that’s about an old Elvis and an old and also not-dead JFK battling an ancient Egyptian mummy in Texas — Campbell’s is the most believable Elvis I’ve ever seen on film, and that’s counting the actual Elvis as himself in all those silly movies from the 60s.
Some might say there’s not enough Bubba Ho-Tep in Bubba Ho-Tep — will I never tire of saying “Bubba Ho-Tep”? I doubt it — and that may be true. See, Elvis and his fellow inmate in decrepit coothood, former president Jack Kennedy — who, after the assassination attempt in 1963, was dyed black and had his brain replaced with a sack of sand; Ossie Davis inhabits him with a conviction and a ferocity that equals Campbell’s — discover that an Egyptian mummy is feeding on the easy prey at the home, and they decide to stop him. But budgetary issues prevent writer/director Don Coscarelli (working from a story by Joe R. Lansdale) from mounting enormous battles with the undead mummy, or even from giving us more than a few quick glimpses of Bubba (played by stuntman Bob Ivy).
But you know what? That’s fine, and it saved us from yet another big, stupid movie all about special effects and nothing else. Instead, this low-budget battle of Bubba becomes a metaphor for all that’s missing from the lives of the warehoused elderly: a sense of dignity, of purpose. There’s a lot of crude earthiness in Elvis’s obsessions with his lost life, his failing body, his invisibility to women, which is particularly tough considering how things used to be. Campbell is downright heartbreaking, and the measure of rejuvenation that Elvis takes in his adventure with JFK is more moving than you’d expect.
Weird? You bet. And not in that comforting weird way, where you go in expecting Bruce with a chainsaw and a smart mouth. Geek comfort food this ain’t, and that’s just groovy.