Elvira Mistress of the Dark: “high camp comedy-horror”

In 1989, Cassandra Peterson was nominated for a Razzie for worst actress for her role as Elvira in this goofball horror comedy. The fact that she lost out to Liza Minelli (who was actually nominated for 2 worst actress Razzies that year), is some kind of crooked justice. Whilst it’s true that this campy, low-budget, fish out of water tale will never be held up as a shining example of the cinematic art, it does achieve its aim, which is to have a lot of fun.

For those of you not familiar with the cult of Elvira, let me fill you in (I warn you – in any review of Elvira, double entendre and innuendo are a basic requirement). Peterson first slipped into the role of Elvira in 1981, hosting a horror strand on an LA TV station called “Elvira’s Horror Macabre”, in which she scathingly hosted a series of B-movie classics from the horror and sci-fi genres. Her trademark low cut, tight full-length black dress, Valley Girl sarcasm, and shameless self-mockery won her a devoted following of fans, and led to a lucrative series of product endorsements, comic book appearances and, of course, the movies.

The movie opens with the closing scene of “It Conquered The World” (1956, Roger Corman), and as the moral of that film hits you round the head like a well-wielded baseball bat, we pull out (look, I did warn you, OK?) to see Elvira reclining on her chaise-longue in the TV Studio, providing her pithy commentary and scathing comments on the film. The rest of the opening act sees her deal with the new, misogynistic owner of the station, as he tries to grope her all over. Of course, in these #metoo days, this could have been uncomfortable viewing, but for Peterson’s trademark sass coming to the fore, resulting in her quitting the job. It seems this is just accelerating her plans, as she and her agent Manny (Charles Woolf) are clearly planning a big show in Vegas. This, and the references to Roger Corman movies, actually mirror the real world – Peterson herself started off as a Vegas showgirl, and the film was co-produced by Corman’s New World Pictures.

Of course, as this is an 80’s goofball comedy, the farcical finger of fate enters the scene, and it turns out the Vegas club want Elvira to invest $50000 in the show, meeting them halfway. It looks like her dreams are shattered, until she receives a letter informing her that her great Aunt Morgana has passed away. Having been raised in an orphanage, Elvira was unaware of any family, but a bequest is a bequest, and so she gets into her trusty T-bird (complete with KICK-ASS number plate), and heads for Fallwell, Massachussets.

As she arrives in the small town, populated by conservative small minds, director James Signorelli has a lot of fun with every aspect of the format he’s working in. From gas station explosions, to a Carrie-esque tarring and feathering scene – at the climax of a blatant parody of the Maniac routine from “Flashdance” (Adrian Lyne, 1983) – and visiting all points inbetween.

Effectively, the town of Fallwell is a substitute for Bormont, the town depicted in “Footloose” (Herbert Ross, 1984). They see Elvira’s dress code, behaviour, and approach to freedom of speech and action as a threat to their little piece of Midwest perfection. The inheritance (a spooky Addams Family like home, a poodle called Algonquin, and Aunt Morgana’s “recipe book”) do not fulfil Elvira’s dreams – which are vivid, and played out for the audience. It is clear, however, that the book is no Delia Smith tome – it is a powerful grimoire, and Elvira’s newly found Uncle Vinny (played with relish by W.Morgan Sheppard) will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. Of course, once Elvira realises the nature of the book, and having given Algonquin a makeover (and renamed him Gonk), she uses it to great effect.We then have a romance story, the people of Fallwell lose their stiffness (but not all of it!), and as Elvira bids them farewell to start up her Vegas show, they beg her to stay.

Yes – the acting from Peterson is laughable, but that’s because playing her character in this with any attempt at seriousness would fall flatter than her lover rival’s chest. It squeezes more innuendo in to its 96 minute runtime than a whole boxset of Carry-on movies. The hit-rate isn’t high, but it doesn’t matter.

The restoration here is from a 4k scan of the original film print, and manages to look hi-def whilst retaining its original look. The audio is crisp and clear, but stereo only. US fans will be disappointed that the release is not happening in Region A, especially as the special features include new content such as audio from Peterson on the “The Search for the Next Elvira”, and a revised edition of the documentary feature “The Making of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark”. If the horror fan in your life needs some joy this Christmas, then you could do worse than let them curl up on the sofa with Elvira – although they may need a bigger sofa… 

ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK is out on Arrow Video Blu-Ray and on Amazon Prime from December 10th.


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