The best thing about monster movies is that they don't have to be original. Other genres, such as action movies and romantic comedies, can be formulaic, but they need a dash of originality for the film to stand out from the crowd. All a monster movie needs is an original monster, or at least an original take on a monster -- or, failing that, just a monster. The rest is gravy. There are the usual variations on the hero. (Male or female? Black or white? Sole survivor or team victory?) And the choice of setting can determine a great deal about how well the movie works. (Would we remember The Creature From Cloverdale Meadows? Thank goodness for the Black Lagoon and other stock horror environments.) But all you really need is a monster.
So Bubba Ho-Tep deserves to be noticed at least for the originality of its characters. The opening of the movie finds Elvis in a rest home, where he whiles away his day obsessing over a growth on his penis. But when a bubba ho-tep -- essentially a redneck mummy -- shows up and starts siphoning away the golden years of the residents, Elvis is forced into action. He chooses, as his co-hero, John F. Kennedy, who has been brainwashed and had his entire body dyed brown, so that he resembles nothing so much as a rascal-capable African-American gentleman.
That these two senile old codgers really aren't Elvis and JFK is what makes Bubba Ho-Tep more engaging than it would otherwise be. Elvis is played by Bruce Campbell, the veritable God of low-budget horror since starring in the superb Evil Dead series. In Bubba Ho-Tep he gets to delve into a character that, by horror-movie standards, is almost unfathomably deep and complex. The delusions and confusions that Elvis has experienced in his life, not to mention his wry philosophizing about ageing and mortality, make the character's monologues much more compelling than the rest of the film.
Of course, a movie in which two senior citizens battle the decaying undead is bound to be slow-moving, and director Don Coscarelli doesn't help by making almost every error possible (lazy editing, boring action, bad lighting). But, given that characters of any type are rare in horror films, and that Bruce Campbell really is a better actor than you think, Bubba Ho-Tep deserves at least a look some evening when you're shambling down the DVD aisles.
Publication date: 07/22/04