Everyone loves Bruce Campbell. He’s eminently lovable; self-deprecating, a natural wit, enthusiastic about his “art” and interactive with his fans. It’s easy to be seduced into cutting anything he shows up in some slack, just by virtue of his mighty Bruce-ness. I know, I’ve done it. Unfortunately, not everything he does has the crazy, slapstick energy of his most famous role. Most of it doesn’t. Don Cascarelli’s Elvis versus Mummy movie has a considerable cult following, based as much on the cult of Don as the cult of Bruce, but its charms are erratic ones. As usual, however, Campbell is the breezy highlight.
The blames rests with Cascarelli, since he adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s short story. The premise is a great high concept mash-up; Elvis Presley, a nursing home resident in declining health, must fight off an ancient Egyptian mummy. Is he really Elvis, or Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff? Or both, as the King claims to have switched places with the real Haff so as to live a life of relative peace and quiet. Aiding Elvis in his quest is “John F. Kennedy” (a wonderful Ossie Davis), who claims to have had his skin dyed in order to ease him into obscurity following the 1963 assassination attempt.
I loved Casceralli’s recent John Dies at the End, and when the director cuts loose with crazy editing or an action sequence Bubba Ho-Tep clicks into gear. There’s a scene in which Elvis fights off a scarab beetle (“I think we got some major bug problems in this place, man”) fuelled with an irresistible knockabout energy, but then Cascarelli lets it fizzle out again (he clearly likes his bugs). Also, for such an oddball concept, it’s disappointing how under-developed the whole affair is. Cascarelli the screenwriter seems more preoccupied coming up with crude scatological and sexual gags (Elvis has a growth on his pecker) than investing in the plot. Elvis is reasonably well drawn – a dispirited, dried-up deadbeat rediscovering his vim – and Campbell can do a passable King/old man amidst his usual double takes and undoubted physical flair. But Cascarelli is stuck in the mode of juvenilia as a writer. I’m sure adolescents will get a big laugh out of the mummy’s subtitled insult “Eat the dog dick of Anubis you asswipe”. Well, adolescents and Kevin Smith. But it’s pretty lazy, really.
This is a threadbare production too, small of cast and cheap of set. It’s atmospherically shot, and effectively scored by Brian Tyler (now a regular on the Marvel movies), but ultimately these elements can’t paper over the joins of a weak script. Too many longueurs of existential gloom punctuated by bursts of crudity. It’s left to Campbell and Davis, and the occasional witticism, to pick up the slack. The idea that the retired Elvis became an Elvis impersonator himself (“Look, I was just impersonating myself. I couldn’t do nothing else”) is quite inspired, and there’s a fun flashback scene where Bruce gets to act against himself as Elvis and Sebastian. Also lines such as “Never, never, fuck with the King” and “Your soul-suckin’ days are over, amigo”, delivered with a Presley drawl, get an easy laugh.
A sequel has been in the offing for some time (Bubba Nosferatu). Campbell dropped out over differences with Coscarelli, which doesn’t bode well and eliminates the main (only?) reason for seeing it. Reportedly, Paul Giamatti (clearly a pal with the director, having also appeared in John Dies at the End) is set to play Colonel Tom Parker and Ron Perlman has been mooted as the replacement Elvis. Perhaps it will be a worthwhile follow-up. On this evidence I’m sceptical it will be more than middling if Coscarelli is on scripting duties, however.