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Bubba Ho-tep ***
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Campbell as an elderly King in Bubba Ho-tep

(Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune, 10.10.03)

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis. Rated: R.

Bruce Campbell might not be a household name, but, at 45, he's already a living legend to the cult-like fans of his campy film repertoire.

The initiated will recognize him as Ash, the ghoul-slaying, meathead protagonist from Sam Raimis Evil Dead trilogy, but Campbell has done plenty to earn his status as a Fangoria pinup. Having appeared in countless slasher flicks, from straight-to-video fare like Mindwarp and Maniac Cop to goofy gorefests like Darkman and Waxwork II: Lost in Time, Campbell has emerged as a modern-day B-movie superstar. Think Bela Lugosi with a more pronounced chin.

The biggest surprise is that Bubba Ho-tep, Campbell's first collaboration with Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli, might be his strangest and silliest achievement in a career marked by brushes with the absurd. (That's saying a lot for a guy whose longtime labor of love, the soon-to-be-released Man with the Screaming Brain, is the story of a white businessman whose brain is partially replaced by that of a Latino street hustler.)

Campbell plays an aging Elvis Presley, relegated to obscurity and stuck in an East Texas retirement home with a condescending nurse, a mysterious lump that may or may not be cancerous, and Jack (Ossie Davis), a fellow codger whos convinced that he is actually President John F. Kennedy. ("They dyed me and replaced part of my brain with sand," he explains.)

The King is racked with guilt over his failed marriage and his estrangement from his daughter, Lisa Marie, but he can't waste time dwelling on the past; his present is hectic enough, thanks to Bubba Ho-tep, the evil Egyptian pharaoh who's using the rest home as his personal slaughterhouse. Determined to play the hero one last time, Elvis concocts an impressively nonsensical plan to defeat his soul-sucking nemesis, and enlists the aid of a wheelchair-bound JFK.

Campbell fans weaned on savvy horror spoofs like Army of Darkness will salivate at the prospect of Bubba Ho-tep. It's a movie with such an aggressively demented premise that it comes with the promise of lunatic comedy, and indeed, Bubba boasts more than a few laughs.

Campbell is eerily effective as Elvis, capturing the Kings mannerisms as effectively as Val Kilmer did Jim Morrison's in The Doors, and Davis brings dignity and sufficient gravity to the role of JFK. Together, their straight-faced approach to Coscarelli's script, based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, exploits the comic potential of the dialogue -- particularly oft-repeated Elvis-isms like a well-timed "Thank you very much" and "Dont f**k with the King."
Still, Bubba is not about zany one-liners and outrageous gags. It is surprisingly understated as a comedy, even melancholy as the King ruminates on his physical infirmities and paternal failings. It is during these quieter moments that Bubba tends to lose its footing, slowing to a sluggish pace that threatens the story's momentum.

That's when Bubba steps in. Clad in cowboy duds that betray his country sensibilities, the pharaoh darts in and out of shadows, cloaked in darkness as he feasts on the souls of the elderly. That the movie is cast in shadows and murky tones should come as no surprise; Coscarelli's old-fashioned approach has changed very little since 1979's Phantasm, a drab exercise in minimalist horror.

Here, he breathes plenty of life into Lansdale's sci-fi farce, although a more imaginative director -- say, Raimi or Tim Burton -- could have turned Bubba into a B-movie masterpiece. -- Rossiter Drake

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