Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (James Signorelli, 1988)


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddElvira busts out in her outrageously funny, big scream, feature film debut!  When her great-aunt dies, famed horror hostess Elvira heads for the uptight New England town of Fallwell to claim her inheritance of a spooky house, a witch’s cookbook, and a punk rock poodle.  But once Fallwell’s stuffy locals get an eyeful of the scream queen’s ample assets, all hell breaks loose.  Can the Madonna of the Macabre find love with a studly cinema owner, avoid the schemes of her creepy great-uncle, titillate the town’s repressed teens, and become a Las Vegas dance sensation, all without being burned alive at the stake?

Cassandra Peterson stars as horror icon Elvira in this sexy comedy hit, filled with wild wisecracks, campy chaos, and scare movie spooks, all poured into the lowest-cut black gown in horror movie history!

Special Features:

James Signorelli’s film tells the “true-life” story of one Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, a hard-luck damsel with modest dreams of celebrity superstardom.  After quitting her job as a horror hostess for an LA TV channel after refusing to sleep with the new station owner (“I need this job like a leper needs a three-way mirror!”), Elvira discovers that her upcoming Las Vegas revue expects her to invest into the show $50,000 she doesn’t have.  As luck would tragically have it, Elvira conveniently discovers that her Great-Aunt Morgana has passed away and she is named as beneficiary to the will.  She quickly hits the road in her creepily modified ’58 Ford Thunderbird and travels to Fallwell, Massachusetts, where she inherits a dilapidated mansion, a poodle, and a treasured book of recipes coveted by her Great-Uncle Vincent (William Morgan Sheppard).  Elvira tries to sell off the recipe book to Vincent, but is stymied by her poodle (made over punk-style and renamed Gonk) who hides it away, aware that it is in fact a powerful spellbook and that Vincent is an evil, 300 year-old warlock.  And despite being a hit with the local teenagers and the town’s movie theatre owner Bob (Daniel Greene), she is unable to sell off Morgana’s home to anyone in the overly conservative community.

Conflicts in Fallwell arise between Elvira and both the town’s moral gatekeepers/town council, Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg), the school principal (Robert Benedetti), the town’s lecherous realtor (Kurt Fuller), and the Meekers (William Duell and Pat Crawford Brown), and with Patty, the local bowling alley operator and rival to Elvira for the attentions of Bob and for the title of most bodacious bust in Fallwell.  When Elvira accidentally serves a powerful love potion/casserole at the town’s Morality Picnic, turning it into a hedonistic orgy (“Leslie was the one covering people in apple butter.  I was just an innocent on-licker.”), Vincent is able to convince the townsfolk to burn the Mistress of the Dark and her punk rock familiar at the stake.  Thankfully, Elvira is able to come out on top, destroying the evil sorcerer, winning the thanks of the town, and inheriting Vincent’s substantial estate, thereby allowing her to realize her Las Vegas dream in a tassel-twirling finale.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark generally received poor reviews at its release and Peterson had the novel distinction of competing for both Worst Actress at the Razzies and Best Actress at the Saturn Awards.  It’s a testament to the loyalty of horror’s scattered legions and part of the reason why there really is no need to justify the film as a potential Arrow Video title.  Elvira has become horror’s preeminent icon since she became the hostess of Movie Macabre in 1981 for Los Angeles-based TV station, KHJ-TV, and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark delivers exactly what fans of the character expect – corny jokes, valley girl attitude, and a lot of sex appeal.  It’s often hackneyed, campy, obvious, and clichéd, but the film intends the schtick and sustains itself quite well for being organized around a series of one-liners.  The film’s acting is often criticized, and while it does paint with broad strokes, Peterson’s Elvira is on point and always charismatic, Kurt Fuller is typically loathsome, Edie McClurg is cheerfully rotten, and William Morgan Sheppard’s villain is steeped in best traditions of Hammer and AIP. And there are lots of things to enjoy about the movie – Elvira’s Macabre Mobile, the poodle make-over, the renovation montage (“Grab a tool and start banging!”), her Oscar clip monologue in the bowling alley (“And if they ever ask about me, tell them I was more than a great set of boobs.  I was also an incredible set of legs.”), her Flashdance homage, the casserole monster, the made-up Elvira baby left at the orphanage, and her glittering, rapping, spider-themed, barely-there Vegas stage show.

We should spend some time talking about what all Elvira fans love first and foremost – the boobs.  It’s difficult not to turn a discussion of the film into a parade of double entendres and innuendos.  After all, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark certainly makes no effort to avoid the subject, being 96-minutes of jiggling, PG-rated bust jokes spilling out of a narrative straining to support them, much like the astounding dress that supports its tit-ular star(s)!  (See what we did there?  Clever wordplay.)  But as André Loiselle notes in “Buxom Monstrosity: Theatricality and the Ostentatious Body in Horror Film,” the horror film trope of the big-breasted girl being chased and killed has significance beyond mere commercial appeal, no matter what Elvira might claim.  Loiselle observes that these voluptuous physiques also threaten the patriarchal normality that horror film killers and monsters upset, and that these unreal bosoms (often enhanced by bodices, corsets, and, dare we add, implants) are at once captivating to masculine authority and yet still in need of abjection and containment like the monsters themselves.  These women operate as “the opposite of the ‘final girl,'” being sexually adventurous and arguably remaining resistant to patriarchal hegemony until their end.  Elvira: Mistress of the Dark relies heavily on this tension of curvaceousness to quite explicitly pit Elvira against the conservative morality of Fallwell.  Chastity comments on first seeing Elvira, “I don’t know who you are or where you came from but you most certainly don’t fit in this town.  Why, you don’t even fit in that dress.”  Yet, this fish-out-of-water comedy relies not just on Elvira’s sexualized appearance and big city attitudes to generate its conflict, but also on the ghoulishness of her appearance – the pale skin, the black hair, the tattered dress, and the fixation on all things morbid and arcane.  This misapprehended threat characterizes Elvira as what Loiselle calls “busty terror,” where the voluptuous woman is not merely associated with the monster, but is the terrorizing perpetrator herself.  For the vast majority of the film, Elvira is both the busty horror film girl (inspiring sex-crazed teenagers both in the film and watching the film) and its monster (rejected and opposed by proper upstanding Americans).  Albeit in a comedic context, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a case study on buxom monstrosity, likely explaining some its sustained appeal and the continued devotion fans have for the Queen of Halloween.

Elvira PosterElvira: Mistress of the Dark is the kind of mid-budget comedy-crossover that were once common in cinemas and had their heyday in the 1980s, but became lost in the furor of respectable 1990s American independent film and squeezed out entirely by big budget, broad appeal, post-millennial multiplex blockbusters.  Thankfully, Arrow Video has some love for these horror-comedies, with releases like Frankenhooker (Frank Henenlotter, 1990) and The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989), and the Mistress of All Media would be a no-brainer for the label and its core base of horror film fans.  It looks like the Image DVD of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is still in print for now, but Peterson and Signorelli’s film needs a Blu-ray edition as vibrant and vivacious of Elvira and a compliment of special features as stacked as … well, you know.

Credits:  We’ve tweaked the cover summary to the Image DVD for our own purposes.  Past disc editions of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark have offered little to no special features to port over to an Arrow Video edition of the title.  We’ve reclaimed the featurette from the VHS edition and proposed a commentary with Peterson, McClurg, and Signorelli given that Peterson included a group commentary on her special edition of Elvira’s Haunted Hills (Sam Irvin, 2001).  Elvira was at the peak of her popularity at the time of the film, and so we’ve tried to include extras from that period to demonstrate that, including her portions of MTV’s 1986 Halloween Special (we’re assuming the music videos would be unavailable/unnecessary), her commercials as spokeswoman for Coors Light beer, and her unproduced sitcom pilot.  We’ve provided a nod to her more recent resurgence with the Funny or Die Halloween anthology, and offered a glimpse into Peterson herself through the RuPaul Drives… webisode.  RuPaul clearly adores Peterson in the webisode, and we believe him when he proclaims Elvira: Mistress of the Dark as among his 5 favourite films.  Naturally, we chose RuPaul to contribute an essay, given that he loves the film, feels a special kinship with Elvira, and would have particular insight into the film’s camp sensibility and Petersen’s life in costume as a single character.

5 thoughts on “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (James Signorelli, 1988)

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