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This Texas tale about how two of the greatest (if not the greatest) American icons ever should have gone out became a massive cult classic while Titanic shrank into motion picture history as another example of predictable frou frou. Courtesy Texas Theatre

As a consumer of literature and film, obviousness does not appeal to me.

Entertainment is fine, but I like to be awake. I like to be engaged, informed, inspired, and sometimes even challenged. The subject can be what’s happened, what’s happening, what’s going to happen, or what should have happened. It doesn’t matter as long as what’s happening on the page or screen is presented in insightful, original ways and is not celluloid lip service or literary small talk.

Which, I concede, places me in the annoying minority.

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In 1997, 20th Century Fox teamed up with Paramount Pictures to bring us James Cameron’s Titanic, a 200,000,000-dollar monument to obviousness, i.e., superbly light on gravitas but heavy on predictable “oohs” and “ahhs.” It became the first motion picture to gross over $1 billion, but it was little more than a Big Mac on the big screen. The cinematic version of the vessel’s ill-fated first sail was hardly a hard sell, and Cameron probably had Hollywood execs at the first mention of the ocean liner’s name.

But what if you didn’t want to tell a story about two young, gorgeous, star-crossed, “I’m-the-king-of-the-world” lovers aboard the most famous, luxurious, “king-of-the-world” ship and the biggest shipwreck obsession of all time? What if you were aiming a little higher?

Then your name might be Joe R. Lansdale or Don Coscarelli.

Lansdale wrote “Bubba Ho-Tep” for an anthology called The King Is Dead in 1994. Coscarelli (of Phantasm fame) co-wrote, co-produced and directed the film version of Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002, and it was released on Oct. 10, 2003.

In Bubba Ho-Tep, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll hasn’t left the building, and the aging Elvis (played by Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell) is up to his ear hairs in bedpans and bland entrees aboard his Titanic, the Mud Creek Nursing Home in deep East Texas. In fact, in this crock-buster, the King is alive and not aging well, but at least there are no beautiful star-crossed lovers on the most famous shipwreck ever. There is, however, a lurking iceberg in the shape of a cursed Egyptian mummy bent on removing the souls of the nursing home inhabitants from orifices where the sun don’t shine. And Elvis is joined in an epic battle against this nefarious soul-sucker by a Black Jack Kennedy (played by screen legend Ossie Davis in his last role), who claims LBJ dyed him brown and left him in Mud Creek to rot.

Instead of boy meets girl and boy dies tragically while saving girl from the greatest pop-culture shipwreck obsession of all time, dilapidated old greatest pop-culture music idol of all time teams up with melanated old greatest pop-culture politician of all time to save their nursing home from a mummified scarecrow right out of the hieroglyph-graffitied Book of the Dead. The story and the script would have been guffawed out of every Hollywood studio exec’s office at the time, but Lansdale and Coscarelli got the last laugh. Dirges converged, the stars misaligned, and a Texas tale about how two of the greatest (if not the greatest) American icons ever should have gone out became a massive cult classic while Titanic shrank into motion picture history as another example of predictable frou frou, ordinary fare.

Bubba Ho-Tep, Lansdale says, is “about two people who were among the most well-known icons of the world in their time who find themselves at their lowest point, the very bottom. I admired them both for different reasons, and I wanted them to have some kind of redemption.”

Mission accomplished.

A decrepit Elvis and a sautéed JFK have one last adventure in this zany, wildly entertaining epilogue as they battle a murky monster for the fate of their fellow Mud Creek residents’ souls.

“They get to face down Death on their own terms,” Lansdale says. “Most of us don’t get that option.”

Lansdale — whose latest book, Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Fiction of Joe R. Lansdale, was released last month — will attend the screening and participate in a short Q&A session afterward. And if you can’t make the Bubba Ho-Tep screening, the movie adaptation of Lansdale’s 2013 novel The Thicket (starring Peter Dinklage and Juliette Lewis) will be out in October, a new genre-defying short story collection titled Senior Girls Bayonet Drill Team will arrive soon, and a new Hap and Leonard novel, Sugar on the Bones, will be released early next year. The Texas Champion Mojo Storyteller is still on the go, so stay in the know.

 

Fort Worth native E.R. Bills is the award-winning author of Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History.

 

Bubba Ho-Tep
7pm Sat at Texas Theatre, 231 W Jefferson Blvd, Dallas. $15-35.
214-948-1546.

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