Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis biopic, called simply Elvis, is a pretty straightforward biopic of the King, even if filtered through a Luhrmann pastiche of sped-up montages, gaudy production design, and everything being incredibly loud. It’s also approved by the singer’s family, meaning certain things — most notably, the last few years of Elvis’ life — are sanded down quite a bit.
But my favorite Elvis movie, at least of the ones made in the current millennium, remains Bubba Ho-Tep, which hit screens in June of 2002, about 20 years before the Luhrmann Elvis movie. It happened to arrive the same month as the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch, which was scored with Elvis music, and somehow featured more songs by Presley than any other movie, including the ones he starred in himself.
Bubba Ho-Tep is an absurdist horror-comedy, based on the mythology of Elvis having secretly lived past his “official” death, and certainly the best film ever made in which Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy team up to fight a mummy.
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli, the director of Phantasm and other horror movies, the film was taken on a “road show,” and slowly built up word of mouth. It became a cult hit, although the only movie Coscarelli has directed since was 2012’s John Dies at the End.
Bubba Ho-Tep was adapted from a short story written by Joe R. Lansdale, which was published in a literary anthology called The King Is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-Mortem. A lot of people forget this now, but it was a frequent pop culture punchline throughout the ’80s that Elvis had faked his own death and was secretly still living.
The irresistible conceit here is that sometime in the mid-’70s, Elvis Presley got sick of his life, so he swapped identities with Sebastian Haff, an Elvis impersonator, who assumed Elvis’ identity. So when “Elvis” died in 1977, that was Haff, while the real Presley stayed alive, and continued for a time as an Elvis impersonator. There was only one copy of the contract proving all this, which Elvis accidentally burned.
By the events of the film, Elvis (Bruce Campbell) is living in a Texas nursing home, still dressing like Elvis and sporting his sideburns. He’s still his lascivious self, going on and on about the “growth” on his “pecker” and dropping frequent profane observations, like “Twenty years ago I could have had her eating out of my asshole,” and “I felt my pecker flutter once, like a pigeon havin’ a heart attack, then lay back down and remain limp and still. Of course, these days even a flutter was kinda reassurin’.”
Having befriended an elderly Black man (Ossie Davis) who claims to be John F. Kennedy, Elvis goes on about his regrets, from his blowing his relationships with his wife and daughter to his failure to fire Col. Parker to his movies. (“Shitty pictures man. Every single one.”)
But soon, the two old, not-so-dead 20th-century icons have teamed up to fight an Egyptian mummy that has invaded their nursing home. Ultimately, they defeat the mummy and both Elvis and JFK get to experience much more dignified deaths than the ones they got in real life.
It’s an absurd premise, but also a very funny one. Bubba Ho-Tep will never be seen by as many people as the Luhrmann Elvis movie, but I like it more.
Bubba Ho-Tep is streaming on Pluto TV.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.