Based on a short story by cult author Joe R. Lansdale, the winning horror-comedy Bubba Ho-tep has a loose, free-associative quality not unlike the popular creative-writing exercise in which one person starts a story, another picks it up after a sentence or two, and so forth. As the ad libs circulate around the room, they follow a crazed, serpentine logic that grows increasingly absurd and hilarious as they ricochet from one imagination to the other. Lansdale begins with a solid chestnut of tabloid speculation: What if a drug-addled Elvis didn't die at Graceland in 1977? What if he really switched places with an Elvis impersonator years before his supposed death, but couldn't switch back after his contract with the impersonator was incinerated in a trailer-park barbecue explosion? Still follow? Okay. Now, what if the King were really residing in a convalescent home in backwater Texas, where he's forced to fight an ancient, soul-sucking Egyptian mummy alongside an elderly black man who thinks he's John F. Kennedy? As directed by Don Coscarelli, the unpredictable mind behind the Phantasm and Beastmaster franchises, Bubba Ho-tep goes through the satisfying midnight-movie paces while restoring a shred of dignity to late-period Presley, who was too outsized a personality to be cut down by pills. Playing against rubber-faced type, cult icon Bruce Campbell grounds his Elvis in a wry, understated swagger that holds the film's wacky excesses in orbit and does more honor to the legend himself than a thousand Vegas lounge-show wannabes. In an inspired piece of casting, veteran actor and civil-rights figure Ossie Davis stars as Campbell's trusty nursing-home sidekick, doing a straight-faced interpretation of a man who genuinely believes to be a re-pigmented JFK. Even without the creepy-crawly, low-budget horror of giant flying beetles and a pharaoh in spurs, Campbell and Davis' relaxed camaraderie would be enough to stake a movie on. As two men claiming to be Elvis and JFK, they make a natural pair: After all, neither has cause to question the other's credibility, so they can peacefully deduce, say, why an ancient mummy would etch "Cleopatra does the nasty" in Egyptian lettering on a bathroom stall. Once his script runs out of left-field surprises, Coscarelli has little left to do but put on his genre cap and soldier his monster movie to a rote conclusion, dutifully dishing out the sort of Evil Dead-style mayhem anticipated by Campbell's fans. It was perhaps inevitable that an jerry-rigged exercise like Bubba Ho-tep would eventually run out of inspiration, but not before paying Jack and the King their due respects.
More from The A.V. Club