Back in the '70s, Elvis Presley secretly traded places with a low-budget impersonator who then unfortunately died in 1977. Eventually, the real E ended up in a rest home in Mud Creek, Texas, forced to live out his days as an Elvis-impersonating nobody -- out of shape, abandoned, without purpose or history, whiling away the days wondering how it all went so wrong.
When things go weird at the home -- folks dropping dead, scarab beetles on the attack -- Elvis bands with another resident, an elderly black man who claims to be President John F. Kennedy. Together they discover that a misplaced Egyptian mummy who eats souls to survive has made the home his personal Old Country Buffet. Elvis and JFK marshal their small resources -- an electric scooter, some kung fu moves, a sense of outrage -- and vow to rid the place of this ornery "Bubba Ho-Tep."
Bubba Ho-Tep sounds cheesy, like one of those self-conscious pop-culture retreads played for easy yuks, but it's not. Director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, The Beastmaster) has adapted a short story from Joe R. Lansdale into a surprisingly low-key black comedy. OK, so there is a mummy on the loose, and there are literal flashes of horror, but the action is paced slowly, slow enough so that a couple of old codgers can negotiate it.
The real gold in this film is the two lead performances, by Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK. Campbell simply disappears into this weary Elvis, without resorting to parody, and delivers a sympathetic portrayal, not a caricature. Campbell came to cult fame in the 1980s Evil Dead series and has made a respectable career of quirky roles; his colleague, the esteemed Davis, has not oft trod the oddball path, but given his winning performance here, he has no reason not to consider it now, even at age 86.
Bubba Ho-Tep wisely plays on the worst fear we all have -- not of mummies or giant bugs in the night, but the more likely truth that our bodies will fail us, that the meaning of our lives will slip away, and our world will shrink to the dimly lit hallways of a shabby rest home. The film derives much of its pleasure from showing Elvis and JFK rallying out of this gloom as the mummy distracts them from their own -- and possibly imagined or even delusional -- self-absorbed worries.
And it's good to revisit Elvis' familiar and ignoble death. Elvis gets a second chance here, to go out swinging and serving a noble cause. There's been so much hype and revisionism around Elvis' life, death and possible after-life; why not let this be new myth? The King of Rock 'n' Roll is back, and he's kicking mummy ass.