The greatest tragedy of Elvis's career was the squandering of his impressive screen-acting talents. Having proved his dramatic mettle in early offerings such as King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, Elvis came out of the army to find himself locked by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, into contracts that earned him staggering amounts of money for making bucket-loads of rubbish films. A veritable slew of screen dross ensued (Clambake, Speedway, The Trouble with Girls, etc), reaching its nadir in the mirthless embarrassment of Tickle Me. As Elvis himself admitted in a light-hearted lip-curling moment: "I made around 20 movies with one expression." Later, Parker scuppered Elvis's plans to accept a challenging comeback role in the remake of A Star Is Born because he didn't want his boy taking second billing to Barbra Streisand. What a louse!
Since Elvis left the building in 1977, his ghost has haunted the silver screen in a variety of enigmatic guises, ranging from Kurt Russell's uncanny impersonation in John Carpenter's TV biopic Elvis to the lame-suited supernatural mentor in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance. Now the spirit of the King returns in the exotic horror comedy Bubba Ho-tep, whose title apparently describes a cross between a Southern good old boy and an Egyptian mummy. According to this legend, a disillusioned Presley swapped lives with an Elvis impersonator who promptly died on the toilet, leaving the real King stranded in anonymity. Felled by a pelvis-wriggling accident and rotting away from his pecker upwards, Elvis lies bedridden in an east Texas retirement home, along with "Jack", an elderly black man who claims to be John F Kennedy. Together, the two drift towards senility until an "evil Egyptian entity" starts sucking souls on their ward - at which point, both are required to conjure up the rebellious spirits of their former selves and go head-to-head with the living dead.
For someone who loves Elvis, conspiracy theories and horror movies, Bubba Ho-tep should have been the cinematic equivalent of a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich with a side order of crawfish and a dessert helping of fried banana to go. The story, by the cult author Joe R Lansdale, owes something to the nutball writings of Gail Brewer-Giorgio (Is Elvis Alive?, The Elvis Files), who claimed that Presley had faked his death and then returned to the stage in the guise of an impersonator named Orion. (Brewer-Giorgio also suggested that Presley was a silent partner in Orion Pictures, the company behind the Oscar-winning shocker Silence of the Lambs.) Expectations are further heightened by the presence of director Don Coscarelli, whose cheap and cheerful Phantasm movies were a model of cronky horror. Better still, the impotent potentate himself is played by genre stalwart Bruce Campbell, who earned the love of horror fans by wielding a chainsaw in the Evil Dead movies, and whose autobiography was terrifically entitled If Chins Could Kill: confessions of a B-movie actor. If Elvis himself never got to do battle with an evil Egyptian deity, surely Campbell was the man to do it on his behalf?
Well, yes and no. Like the camp Vegas shows that defined the latter part of Elvis's career, Bubba Ho-tep is a lively mess that requires a high level of uncritical audience goodwill. On the plus side, Coscarelli's self-consciously culty movie is just about kooky (and short) enough to get by on the strength of its twisted kitsch value alone. Campbell and his co-star Ossie Davis are endearingly doddery in the central roles, and their scenes together achieve an unexpected level of touching melancholia. For all its Z-grade genre daftness and cheap knob gags, the film has something quietly profound to say about the withering horrors of old age. Visually, Coscarelli injects an off-kilter air of creepy fun into the retirement-home setting, reminding us of his splendidly atmospheric work in the mortician's lair of Phantasm.
Yet whether such qualities can fully compensate for the fact that Bubba Ho-tep is neither scary enough to succeed as a horror movie, nor funny enough to cut it as a flat-out comedy, is a moot point. There are moments when one is reminded of those endless Troma titles (Surf Nazis Must Die, Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell), which were always more fun to talk about than to watch. Quirkiness is all very well, but like its close cousins "zaniness" and "wackiness", a little goes a long way.
Ultimately, like so many of Presley's own movies, Bubba Ho-tep is fodder for the fans alone. What Elvis himself would have made of it, Lord only knows. But if I had to choose between Bubba Ho-tep and Tickle Me, I know which one would get my vote, and I suspect the King would agree. Thangyouverrimushhhh . . .