Friday, June 3, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #14: Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark (dir. James Signorelli, 1988)

When I sat down to watch the film Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark for the umpteenth time, since my first viewing at 11 years old in a theater in 1988, I was suddenly overcome with a depressing thought; without careful reminders, viewing, and discussion, it is possible that the current generation younger than mine will live in a world without knowing about the hilarious horror icon Elvira (nee Colorado Springs-raised actress Cassandra Peterson) and if there is anything I can do to keep that apocalypse from happening then I’m going to sound the trumpet now.
So, you may ask younger generation, who is this Elvira you speak of? In short, she was the host of Movie Macabre, a weekly late night television show that aired in the mid 80’s on NBC. The show paired a bad, old horror film with an introduction, commercial bumpers and epilogue done by Elvira, an amazing tower of comic genius, horror knowledge and sex appeal (she’s never met a boob joke or a punch line she didn’t like). She’s the voice and attitude of a true California Valley Girl mixed with the face and hair of a rocking Siouxsie Sioux and crossed with the va-va-vavoom and bawdiness of Mae West (younger gen: you may have to Google those references on your phone so I’ll wait for you to do that…ok, welcome back). Now, you could start your Elvira-cation by viewing a number of her old shows on DVD (available in some neat collections) or you can go straight for the main course and watch the self-titled film that really puts the whole package together. Co-written by Petersen and former Groundlings cast mate John Paragon (who also played Pee-Wee Herman’s genie friend Jambi - all Groundlings character creations that sweetly help define the 80s) the film is a laugh riot of campy sass and sexiness and a love letter to some of the great old horror films that Elvira lovingly spoofed every week on her show. It may also be the best television-to-film launch since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
In the film, Elvira is toiling away at her job as a local B-movie hostess at a sad little TV station when she quits due to yet another come-on by a skeezy station manager. This change puts a dent in her dreams of moving on to a big Vegas show as she needs to front $50,000 to produce it. What’s a flat-busted horror gal to do? The answer comes immediately when a telegram arrives informing our gal that she had a great-aunt Morgana who has died and left her something in her will, all she has to do is come to the appropriately named Falwell, Massachusetts to collect what she assumes is a big pay day. Arriving in town and instantly causing a furor with the town prude, Chastity Pariah (the always great Edie McClurg), Elvira and her boobs (really, they should have second and third billing in the film) learn that she hasn’t inherited money at all but instead she’s given her great aunt’s spooky old house, yappy poodle and a precious book of recipes which her creepy uncle Vincent (the great character actor William Morgan Sheppard) seems to be eyeing with suspicious motives. As Elvira tries harder and harder to fit in with the townsfolk while she tries to find a way to unload the house and woo a hapless but hunky movie theater owner in the process, she continually trades barbs with the town elders and inspires the teens who have never seen anything like her. It would be a shame to make a movie about Elvira and not bring in some horror elements so our heroine soon learns that her aunt’s recipe book is really a book of spells, revealing Morgana as a powerful witch and uncle Vincent as a bitter angry warlock who needs the book for the upcoming eclipse to transform him into the Master of the Dark. Will Elvira be able to tap into her own bloodline to save the town from Vincent’s power? Will anyone in Falwell ever give her a break? Will she ever make it to Vegas? And how does she keep those boobs from popping out of her dress?
Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark is easily one of the most quotable comedies ever made and so much of that has to do with Peterson’s performance as Elvira. The actress knows her character so well that it’s impossible to see where one ends and the other begins which allows for such a lived-in ease that every single joke and punch line escapes being a groaner and instead lands with perfection in each take. Whether displaying a comic sexiness with such lines as “My name is Elvira but you can call me…tonight” or giving off some sass (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt much less a great one”) and finding ways to comment on her cleavage as much as possible (one might say it happens too often in the film but I feel it doesn’t happen enough) it’s the comedic script that rings true and secures Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark as required viewing for anyone who wants a fun, campy introduction to one of the world’s greatest icons. In an effort to keep her status alive and well I will someday bring this film to my Watching Hour series at the Denver FilmCenter but it needs to be with the queen herself in-person, so until that can happen I recommend watching this film as often as you can so that it sticks with you as much as one of Elvira’s corsets. That’s saying something.
Keith Garcia
Programming Manager
Denver Film Society

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