Originally published by Actor/Singer, Manuel Caneri (2017)
I had just started high school as a freshman in the fall of 1988. Elvira was hitting the pinnacle of her success as the “Mistress of The Dark.” Her ghoulishly beautiful face was gracing the ads of booze products, Halloween costume knickknacks and late night talk shows. Living in Northern California, I did not have access to her formative years on “Movie Macabre,” the B-movie hosting gig which propelled her to fame. This was a two-fold disappointment in my teen years as I was desperately curious to see more of Elvira AND to have more exposure to the low budget horror films which I was increasingly becoming more infatuated with (read: obsessed). In the age before Netflix and YouTube, it was more challenging to get your hands on these Z-grade treasures.
Needless to say, it was to my great excitement that Elvira released her first feature length film in the fall of 1988. I saw the movie on a Saturday afternoon, the day after its release. It was the 1:00pm showing (I have the memory of an elephant) and for the next 96 minutes I was swept into Elvira’s world and I ate up every second of it. Here was a love letter to creature features enveloped in a joyously silly, high spirited comedy. And, here also, was Elvira in all her delightfully devilish glory. I fell head over spiked black heels in love with the “Mistress of The Dark,” a single sided love affair that continues to this day (as of this writing, I have an Elvira wallet in my back pocket).
I only saw the film in theatres one time. It didn’t do much business at the box office and sadly vanished from theatres prematurely. When it was released on video a few months later, in true movie nerd fashion, I rented the film almost every single weekend thereafter. The clerk who worked at City Video took pity on my weekly rental habit and very kindly offered to sell me a used (mostly by me) copy of the movie for $12. With zero hesitation I took him up on his offer and for years to come I wore out the videocassette subjecting everyone from my sister and my parents to my childhood friends (and any other unsuspecting bystander who crossed my path) to experience the delicious exploits of Elvira.
The film finds our heroine quitting her lackluster job as a horror hostess at an obnoxious TV station and heading to Falwell, Massachusetts for the reading of her great aunt Morgana’s will. Upon her arrival she is greeted with shock and dismay by the conservative town residents but is able to befriend the local teens, in addition to capturing the attention of the hunky owner of the local movie theatre. Hoping to receive big bucks as part of her inheritance to finance a Vegas show, she is instead given a rundown house, a recipe book and poodle named Alconquin (whom she renames Gonk after giving him a punk rock make over) . Unbeknownst to her, the harmless recipe book is in actuality a tome of magic spells which her shady Uncle is hell bent on getting his hands on for dubious conjurations. It all culminates in a pastiche of vicious gossipers, demon attacks and musical numbers.
Cassandra Peterson and company didn’t set out to make an epic masterpiece with “Elvira: Mistress of The Dark.” It’s a simple, lighthearted and slightly naughty comedy and never assumes to be anything more than that. And that is one of the keys to its lovability. It embraces its silliness and gleefully celebrates it. Sure, I’m a huge fan of sophisticated cinema like the work of Hitchcock or Orson Welles et al, but I also have a massive sized soft spot for the camp talents of Roger Corman and the giddy, even juvenile humor of low brow comedies like The Sweetest Thing and Dirty Love (yes, the one with Jenny McCarthy… there, I said it.) Critics were harsh and movie goers didn’t turn out upon its initial release but thankfully through the years the film has gained a sizable cult following in addition to some very dedicated fans.
The movie works so well mostly due the fact that its protagonist is immensely likeable. She’s a fictional character who has existed in the real world years before the movie was actually made. The difference this time is that Elvira is now a full-fledged character with a backstory and a fuller, cohesive personality. Sexy and bawdy? Yes. But also tough, flawed and overwhelmingly endearing. As expected, the movie rests on her shoulders (and her ample cleavage) and she carries it with confidence and a heaping ton of charm. She’s also a terrific comedienne. Peterson spent the early part of her career as a member of the Groundlings, the famed LA comedy troupe, and she brings a knack for delivery and timing to the character. Shockingly she was nominated for a Razzie Award and many reviewers criticized her as being a bad actress. I believe it’s because they were clueless about who Elvira was and how the character operated and that Peterson, much like Paul Reubens and Pee Wee, was creating a larger than life fictional persona.
Another noteworthy trait worth mentioning is that Elvira is a feminist hero. Hear me out! She unapologetically enjoys her body and her sexiness but she’s also fiercely independent and maneuvers around her obstacles without ever needing help from a man. When a letch crosses her path, she kicks his ass and puts him in his place. She demands respect without having to compromise her behavior or her image. She’s in charge baby!
The film makes good use of some delightful character actors. Edie McClurg, an ’80s staple famous for her cameos in John Hughes comedies and supporting roles in TV sitcoms, is Chastity Pariah, the town’s detestable busy body. She’s funny and clearly enjoying her turn as a colorful antagonist. W. Morgan Sheppard wisely plays it straight as Elvira’s brooding-come-demon uncle, the real villain of the piece. Daniel Greene is easy on the eyes as burly love interest Bob and Susan Kellerman is the jealous, faux breasted Patti. There’s also the late Jeff “Kenickie” Conaway as one of Uncle Vinny’s slimy henchmen, a bossy, grouchy Pat Crawford Brown (“Shut up Leslie!”) and some affable young actors as the teens at Elvira’s side.
A large part of the movie was filmed at the Warner Bros studios in Burbank, California. The Midwest Street area of the backlot stood in for Falwell, Massachusetts. These sets have been used in countless other films such as The Music Man and The Monster Squad in addition to standing in for Hazzard County in The Dukes of Hazzard television program. The façade of Elvira’s house was located just steps away from the town square area. Sadly it was torn down recently during a studio expansion. I was able to view these sets a few times when I took the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. My friends and I made the tour guide stop the oversized golf cart when we passed by Elvira’s house. We ran up to the façade and took photos on the porch while a gaggle of German tourists waited less-than-patiently for us to resume the tour. Incidentally, it has been erroneously reported on various web sites that the movie was filmed on the Back to The Future square on the Universal lot and that Elvira’s residence was the same house used in The Munsters. Both of these instances are not correct but I can see why some casual viewers might mistake the two as they look quite similar in their layout and design.
Cassandra Peterson tried for many years to make a followup this little gem and after many false starts, she was finally able to self-finance Elvira’s second big screen adventure. Filmed in Romania, Elvira’s Haunted Hills is a playful homage to the Roger Corman Poe films of the 60’s which starred the late, great Vincent Price. As a big fan of those classic films, I appreciated and enjoyed the movie. It would be unfair to expect any other Elvira movie to rekindle the giddy charm of her first celluloid foray.
I can’t say “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” made me think deeply about life or made me discover some hidden truth of the human condition but what it has done for me might be even better than all that. It made me laugh and it made me happy. And it continues to do so upon every viewing. What more could you ask for?
Until next time, “unpleasant dreams”…