The Shtick That Wouldn’t Die, Part 1 : “Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark”

Posted: November 27, 2010 in movies
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"Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" Movie Poster

You really gotta hand it to Cassandra Peterson, creator (sort of, as I’ll explain in due course) of the world’s most famous horror movie hostess role : she’s been at this gig for getting on 30 years (!) now, and there’s definitely something sort of iconic about her whole shtick. And it’s not just down to her most obvious — ahem! — attributes, ‘cuz let’s face it, there are younger, better-looking ladies with bigger boobs who could’ve supplanted her from her throne years ago if they’d wanted to, and no one’s really even tried. I understand that they even came up with a “Find the Next Elvira” reality show and that no one won — it was just decided that nobody else could bring to the role what Peterson does.

Or something like that. I never saw the show so if I’ve got that wrong maybe someone can correct me. But the fact that Peterson’s still going strong in the part is all the evidence you need that even if they did find a “winner,” she never assumed the mantle of  Mistress of the Dark.

And do you want to know why I think the part will remain hers forever? It’s simple, really — underneath all that vampish corny OTT glam beats the heart of a genuinely talented comedic performer. Sure, the whole Elvira act is as groaningly lame and obvious as the movies she hosts (she starts this flick by sowing It Conquered the World on her late-night TV show) — you can count on her trotting out every heard-it-a-thousand-times boob joke in the world, plenty of gratuitous cleavage shots, campy-as-hell costumes and props — you know the drill. Yet she somehow takes two of the biggest taboos out there — sex and death — and makes them palatable. Safe. Even dully obvious.It’s one thing to de-mystify these two subjects, it’s another altogether to make them damn near family-friendly, which is exactly what she does.

Back in 1988, her whole tits, ass ‘n horror routine was even deemed palatable enough for NBC to green-light an Elvira sitcom. Along the way things got muddled up as they so often do in Hollywood, the show was canceled before the pilot was ever completed, and the pilot was picked up by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and transformed into (almost) a 90-minute feature film titled, unsurprisingly enough Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

You want surprises? You want a plot with twists and turns? You want the unexpected? Go elsewhere. The whole idea here is to serve up exactly what you would expect, and that’s kinda the beauty of it.

Elvira wants to ditch her movie-hosting job in LA and host her own Vegas revue. She’s got an offer she’s hot to take, but she needs to cough up $350,000 in production costs for the show from her own pocket. Lucky for her, a great-aunt that she’s never met has just passed away and she’s summoned to the town of Falwell, Massachusetts for the reading of said great-aunt’s will. The timing couldn’t be better as she’s just rebuffed the slimy and pathetic sexual advances of the Texas cattle magnate who just bought the TV station she worked at, and finds herself out of a job. Next thing you know she’s packing up her skull-festooned vintage Cadillac convertible and heading on a cross-country road trip to New England.

Once there, she finds she hasn’t inherited a pile of cash, after all, but instead has been left with a creaky old fixer-upper of a house, a yippie little dog, and an ancient recipe book. And from here I bet you can predict everything else on offer : this being New England the town is a puritanical backwater, and Elvira invokes the ire of her prudish neighbors, particularly one Ms. Chastity Pariah (played by Edie McClurg, who made a career out of playing nosy, overbearing neighbors). The recipe book is actually a tome full of powerful spells because her deceased great-aunt was a witch, just like Elvira. The horny teenage boys in town will do anything to try to catch a glimpse of our star’s hooters, and when spying through her bedroom window doesn’t work, they settle for remodeling her house in order to try to curry her — ummmm — favor, and maybe get paid in trade, if you catch my drift. Elvira gets the hots for a local thick-headed stud who owns a movie theater but doesn’t seem to catch on that our lady in black has the hots for him. The local PTA-type group doesn’t take kindly to all the boys in town going ga-ga for the new tramp —- err, vamp — in town. Her great-aunt’s devious brother knows the truth about the spellbook and will do anything to get it. Elvira hosts a midnight screening of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” at the aforementioned local stud’s theater to try to scare up some cash. The enraged townsfolk follow in the footsteps of their witch-burning ancestors and try to burn Elvira at the stake. Everyone wakes up and sees the error of their ways just in time and she leaves town having ended up making friends with everyone and heads for Vegas where her show opens to a packed house. The end.

Throw in all the tired tit-jokes we talked about earlier, lots of gratuitous cleavage shots as we talked about earlier as well, one obvious double-entendre after another, some very-near-but-of-course-not-quite nudity (this is strictly a PG-13 affair), a couple cheap special effects,   and a raucous, crowd-pleasing Vegas show number at the end that features a real special effects sequence that you absolutely gotta see to believe (I’ll say no more, apart from the fact that she gives her tassles one hell of a workout), and you’ve got what you could safely call an Elvira-story-by-the-numbers.

Director James Signorelli, a TV veteran who had been hired to helm the scuttled pilot, ended up sticking around to finish the feature film version, and he’s got a pretty basic, point-and-shoot style. You’re really just in this to see her, and any stylistic flourishes would just get in the way. He’s there to do a workmanlike job of showing off his leading lady, and that’s exactly what he does.

So, like I said at the outset, nothing original here. Nothing unexpected. Nothing even remotely surprising. But hell, it’s fun. Stupid fun, to be sure, but fun nonetheless. Peterson had her whole routine down to a science by this point (she was hired to be a horror movie hostess based more on her theatrical comedy work than her looks, and basically “created” the Elvira character on her own from a very brief outline provided by the TV station — while 1950s horror host Maila Nurmi, a.k.a. Vampira, might disagree, the fact that Peterson won a lawsuit for stealing her shtick that Nurmi filed against her tells you that she basically came up with this whole persona herself), and while you can safely predict pretty much every cue in this film, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just says that our gal Cassandra really knows what she’s doing.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is available on DVD from Anchor Bay either as a stand-alone release or on a double-feature disc with Transylvania 6-5000. The technical specs are the same for each — it’s a nice-looking widescreen anamorphic transfer with perfectly serviceable 2.0-channel stereo sound and no extras apart from the theatrical trailer and a text bio of Cassandra Peterson that’s pretty interesting reading.

Sometimes you’re just in the mood to get exactly what you’re bargaining for  from a movie. Next time you find yourself in one of those moods, you could do a lot worse than giving Elvira, Mistress of the Dark a go. Expect —- well, the expected. That’s not always such a bad thing.

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