As an aging Elvis, Bruce Campbell must do battle with the evil, undead Bubba Ho-Tep.

Hail to the King, Baby 

As an aging Elvis, Bruce Campbell must do battle with the evil, undead Bubba Ho-Tep.

In the beginning, there was The Evil Dead, and Stephen King looked down upon it and saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let there be Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, that the message of writer-director Sam Raimi be spread across the land!" So it was written, so it was done. Then those who had beheld the glory cried out, "Lord, this Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell is a comedic genius! When shall the rulers of the land of Hollywood appreciate his glory?" And God (by way of Harry Knowles) told them it was to be a test of their faith. But lacking conviction in this divine proclamation, the people proceeded to the superhighway of information, upon which they declared such musings as "bruce camble roxx ... if u disagree u r gay."

Flash forward to the present day. To the world at large, Bruce Campbell is still the Evil Dead guy, and most of his significant roles since, like his recurring character Autolycus on Raimi's Hercules and Xena shows, have cast him in that same role of campy action man. There's little disputing his talent at such things, but the jury's been out on whether he actually has any range as an actor. Well, call that court to order because, believe it or not, a horror-comedy called Bubba Ho-Tep, about an aging Elvis in a haunted rest home (according to our protagonist, the real King got tired of fame and switched places with an impersonator, who broke a hip and fell offstage and into a coma), is just the film to prove that Campbell is not only a good actor -- he might just be a great one.

Go ahead and laugh. There are jokes aplenty, and scares, as would befit any collaboration between Campbell, writer-director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) and wacky Texan author Joe R. Lansdale, on whose short story the film is based. But as absurd as it sounds, you may actually find yourself holding back a tear or two watching the lead performances of Campbell and Ossie Davis. The latter plays Jack, as in Kennedy, convinced that he's been lobotomized and had his skin dyed black by the CIA. No one has to be persuaded that Davis has acting chops, but Campbell amazes by utterly disappearing into his role.

Certainly this is not a film to be taken entirely seriously, not when Campbell's Elvis gets lines such as "I felt my pecker flutter once, like a pigeon having a heart attack" or when the film's villain, Bubba Ho-Tep, is an Egyptian mummy who dresses like a redneck and writes hieroglyphic graffiti in a men's room stall while defecating the residue of the souls he's just eaten. But Coscarelli displays a skillful hand, never more so than when he manages to generate some shocks from Bubba Ho-Tep's patently fake-looking scarab. The director even throws in a Phantasm reference or two -- star Reggie Bannister gets a cameo, the mummy's hairdo resembles that of the villainous Tall Man, and the flying scarab recalls that villain's killer spheres.

Elvis and Jack may not be who they say, but it scarcely matters. Like Peter Pan never wanting to grow up because it would mean never hearing stories, Elvis and Jack are kids with an imaginary world that matters more than the drab reality that boring adults are incapable of seeing past. The slowed-down perspective of a senior citizen is conveyed by subjective shots in which Elvis sees everything speeded up.

A poignant look at old age may not be what the average Evil Dead fan is after, but rest assured that Campbell has plenty of wisecracks here to latch onto. More important, perhaps, is that even those unfamiliar with the name Sam Raimi may wander in and discover an actor hitherto unknown beyond the cult circuit. The mention of a potential sequel at the tail end of the credits is probably just another gag, but the fact that it engenders even the tiniest spark of hope for further Elvis adventures is proof that the filmmakers have solidly scored.

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