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Movie review: "Bubba Ho-tep" - Elvis, JFK wannabe take on mummy in enjoyable 'Ho-tep'

"Weird" doesn't begin to describe the premise of "Bubba Ho-tep." Here it is: Elvis Presley, who switched places with an Elvis impersonator in the 1970s because he was tired of fame, is living in a Texas rest home. Everybody there thinks he's actu...

"Weird" doesn't begin to describe the premise of "Bubba Ho-tep."

Here it is: Elvis Presley, who switched places with an Elvis impersonator in the 1970s because he was tired of fame, is living in a Texas rest home. Everybody there thinks he's actually the impersonator, the guise he was in when he broke his hip onstage and thus wound up in the home.

Elvis teams up with an elderly black man, who thinks he's John F. Kennedy, to battle a mummy that has invaded the home and is killing its residents.

Really, that's the plot.

Fortunately, director and screenwriter Don Coscarelli has cast two very intelligent actors as the main characters.

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Those leads, Bruce Campbell (Elvis) and Ossie Davis (Kennedy), are smart enough to play it straight.

Nobody's ever going to confuse Coscarelli with Shakespeare -- although some of the dialogue is amusing -- but the actors are smart enough to know the secret of good comedy: Don't get hokey.

"Bubba Ho-tep" is blessedly free of the tiresome, winking irony that makes so many modern comedies a chore to sit through.

Campbell, who's been something of B-list film star since 1981's "The Evil Dead," actually is an actor of subtlety and intelligence. His Elvis is world-weary and full of regrets; he's got the voice and walk down, but there's no caricature.

And there's real, and very sweet, tenderness in Campbell's Elvis, especially when he's talking to Kennedy. There's brass as well, like when he tells off an officious nurse.

Like Campbell, Davis doesn't bury his character in tricks. He's not a raving loony. His explanation of how a white U.S. president wound up living in a Texas rest home as an old black man even makes a weird kind of sense.

Of course, you never believe he's actually Kennedy, but you believe that he thinks he is.

Coscarelli has worked on the fringes of the mainstream movie industry for years. He first gained fame with 1979's "Phantasm," a silly horror movie, and directed 1982's "The Beastmaster," which plays about 10 times a day on various cable television stations.

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As a director, he's somewhere north of Ed Wood but south -- far south -- of, say, John Carpenter.

Coscarelli does have a gift for making a decent film with relatively little. Judging by its look, the entire budget for "Bubba Ho-tep" wouldn't pay the catering bill on a Bruce Willis movie.

But Coscarelli is at least smart enough to get out of his actors' way and let them practice their craft. When you've got people like Campbell and Davis in front of the camera, that can make all the difference.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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