Label: Anchor Bay UK
Release date: 27th February 2006
Running time: 92mins
Director: James Signorelli
Stars: Cassandra Peterson, William Morgan Sheppard, Daniel Greene, Susan Kellerman, Jeff Conaway, Edie McClurg.
As something of a departure from the rest of the stuff reviewed here, this new Anchor Bay UK release is primarily a comedy - but to be fair, it has more than a touch of gothic; a haunted house, an esoteric text and a mist filled graveyard. Ample credentials for inclusion, I would think. ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK (1988) features US horror host Elvira in her screen debut. In my opinion UK horror fans were lucky not to have to endure the phenomenon of the horror host. The very thought of my film viewing being constantly interrupted by some wise-cracking goon in make up drives me to distraction. But of course if we substitute said goon for a busty Goth with a line in smutty humour that gives 'Carry On' films a run for the money, I’d probably make an exception.
In the movie, Elvira works as the hostess of a low-budget TV horror show. She is constantly harassed, and groped by her lecherous boss, but dreams of becoming the star of her own Las Vegas show. Things start to look up when her great aunt Morgana passes away and she is summoned to the small New England town of Falwell for the reading of Morgana's will. She quits her job and sets off, in the finest Goth car ever, to claim her inheritance, and fund her path to Las Vegas stardom.
The inheritance turns out to be a haunted house, a witch's cookbook and a guardian poodle. To make matters even worse, the Falwell residents are unfriendly and sexually repressed, although Elvira does strike a chord with the male adults and local teenagers. The town leaders and womenfolk horrified by Elvira's attitude and appearance, close ranks and plot against her. Things get even more complicated as her creepy and increasingly satanic Uncle Vincent (William Morgan Sheppard - THE KEEP d. Michael Mann, 1983 and WILD AT HEART d. David Lynch, 1990) is desperate to get his hands on the late Morgana's cookbook. Meanwhile Elvira entices the local kids to renovate the old house with a blaze of colour, shaves and dyes the poodle punk-rock style, and seduces the local muscle-bound nice guy. An accident with the mystical recipe book results in a bacchanalian frenzy, a Salem style witch hunt and a near-burning at the stake.
Director James Signorelli is best known for directing Saturday Night Live shows, but is of more interest here for his cinematographic credits which include: PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (d. Brian De Palma, 1974), BLACK CEASAR (d. Larry Cohen, 1973), SUPERFLY (d. Gordon Parks Jr., 1972) and SUPERFLY T.N.T. (d. Ron O’Neal, 1973). However the driving force behind this film is Elvira herself or Cassandra Peterson if you prefer, although in the film, it’s her alter-ego’s name that appears in the credits.
Peterson was mainly known as a TV actress, but she had also made films with Pee-Wee Herman and Cheech and Chong. She had started her career wanting to be Ann Margaret, and joined a Las Vegas chorus (this is reflected in the film’s finale). She dated Elvis Presley and, on his advice, went to Italy to sing and tour with a rock ‘n’ roll band. Whilst there, she met Fellini who cast her, albeit briefly, in ROMA (1972). Fellini had earlier cast Liverpudlian horror icon Barbara Steele in 8 ½ (1963). In the February 1986 edition of Monsterland magazine, Peterson claimed to have appeared in spaghetti westerns, and Italian, Spanish and Filipino horror films, all seemingly low budget and anonymous - but she definitely made WORKING GIRLS (d. Stephanie Rothman, 1974) for Roger Corman.
Back in LA Peterson started a TV career appearing in shows like Fantasy Island and Happy Days. She was then interviewed for the post of TV horror-host, and was successful due to her ability to play around with the script. Her sense of humour and comic timing were derived from her association with the Groundlings Theatre which also featured Pee-Wee Herman and ‘Elvira’ writer John Paragon. She would be known as Vampira.
Maila Nurmi, the original Vampira, a 1950’s horror hostess who had appeared in Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, wanted double the money for the use of her name, so it had to be changed. The name Elvira was chosen instead possibly derived from a combination of ‘Elvis’ and ‘Vampira’. Her original costume was modelled on Sharon Tate’s in Roman Polanski’s DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES (1967), but it was too pink - clearly black was needed; and so the vampire/punk crossover emerged, and her make-up has been a trademark since 1981. Elvira was also accused of ripping off Vampirella, Morticia Adams and Lily Munster. What about Fenella Fielding with her splendid Hammer-style cleavage in CARRY ON SCREAMING (1966)?
Elvira’s cleavage was always the centre of focus as she presented ‘Movie Macabre’, and here Signorelli again milks it for all it’s worth, never missing an opportunity to have Elvira squeeze her chest against a car windscreen, prison bars, a graveyard gate or just bounce around willy-nilly. Signorelli must have spent a great deal of pre-production time watching Russ Meyer films. As well as these shots and the endless amount of double entendres, there are plenty of visual jokes where the director squeezes in references to Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (1963) - the garage fire, and De Palma’s CARRIE (1976) - the tar bucket, and for good measure, some Roger Corman style misty sets too. But most poignant of all is a line of dialogue from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), which appears in the pre-credit sequence, “Try your intellect on me, I’ll see you in hell first”. This line sums up the proceedings nicely.
The only problem with this DVD release is the distinct lack of extras. It lacks a theatrical trailer; I recall seeing a video trailer myself on several occasions when the film was originally released on VHS. The Biographies section contains only a short bio for Elvira, interesting though it is, and the film notes section merely provides a synopsis of the film.
However, these minor points aside, the film is a humourous and highly enjoyable
romp with an anti-moralistic message. It's best viewed with a roomful of
friends and a crate of beer. Or as Peterson herself said in an interview
for Fangoria magazine,
“If they don’t get the jokes, at least they have the cleavage” (Fangoria September 1988).
There has since been a sequel, ELVIRA’S HAUNTED HILLS (2001).
Widescreen presentation (1.78:1),
optional Dolby Digital 5.1,
Dolby Digital 2.0,
subtitles for the hard of hearing and scene selection.