BLOGTOBER 10/24/2021: ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK
During Elvira's 40th Anniversary Very Scary, Very Special, Special on Shudder, the apparently immortal horror heckler (she looks exactly the same as she did when I was a little kid, WT actual F??) does a bit where she pretends to read rude letters about her own movie. One of the messages, from a "Leonard Maltin", complains that there was no character development, and while this is all for laffs, that was really the general complaint about ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK. Unfortunately, it's hard to disagree, and this points to a paradox within the character herself. The figure of the horror host forms a sort of bridge between fans and the films we love, but when her routine so favors cheap digs and low blows, is Elvira really with us, or against us?
Somewhere I heard, probably more than twice or thrice, the basic admonishment that nobody tries to make a bad movie. Making a movie at all is a huge challenge, and you can assume that anybody who showed up to work on one was trying as hard as they could. And like, I think that's a pretty good benefit of the doubt to take to any viewing experience. I can't convince myself that this is literally always true, but even if we do take for granted that every movie is made with the best of intentions, that still doesn't cover the toll taken by financial hardship, production hangups, lack of inspiration, inexperience, and just plain old incompetence, among other enemies of art. Luckily, movies that suffer from these ails can still be enormously entertaining at a certain mental remove, as per the great Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was certainly a major contributor to the modern craze for irony that lingers on to this day. The thing to note is that MST3K always had a warm glow of affection around it, at least in the Joel Hodgson years; perhaps this aura of sympathy stems from the creator himself being a prop comic, and his uber-independent production being not that far removed from the never-say-die creative spirit of a grade B or Z genre movie. In any case, while Hodgson's style of sarcastic commentary caught on in a big way, his baseline love of (as he put it) "weird, adorable movies" takes more soul than some viewers have to offer, and it can feel as if most people enjoy watching something "cheezy" because it gives them a chance to spew some sort of repressed rage in the form of nasty, condescending commentary that doesn't rise to the level of comedy, and that doesn't have much purpose for anyone but the spewer.
Where the hell was I going with this?
Oh yeah. I want to know what Elvira's whole deal is supposed to be.
Cassandra Peterson seems like a lovely person. An interesting person, even. Somebody I wouldn't mind being stuck in an elevator with. She's had an eventful life, one that probably required a lot of chutzpah, and any friend of Pee-wee Herman is a (theoretical) friend of mine. But right at the beginning of the movie about her busty, bouffant-sporting hostess character, Elvira herself says something that I found suspect. Well actually, she does it twice, once immediately in the first scene, where she tears into the Roger Corman classic IT CONQUERED THE WORLD on her TV show, a mockup of the real-life KHJ-TV series Elvira's Movie Macabre. Pointing her finger down her throat, she quips that the movie was "about an hour and a half too long," which is way harsher than even Leonard Maltin was in his own measured review. Seconds later, after being groped by the station's sleazy new owner, Elvira quits, ranting to her agent, "As soon as my show opens in Las Vegas, I'll never have to host another one of those crappo horror movies again!"
So anyway, even though Elvira doesn't have the dough to launch her own Vegas revue, she gets a fresh start when she inherits the fortune of her mysterious Great Aunt Morgana. She travels from Kansas to Massachusetts with dollar signs in her eyes, only to discover that her winnings are a dilapidated mansion, an ornery toy poodle, and an old recipe book—actually a powerful grimoire, which is the envy of Elvira's Uncle Vincent (William Morgan Sheppard), actually an evil warlock and the only other survivor of her magical bloodline. Elvira's journey of self-discovery is fraught with peril, not only from Vincent, but from the even more menacing Morality Club and its president, Chastity Pariah (the incomparable Edie McClurg), who virtually runs the town. Luckily, Elvira has a little help in the form of local teens who are raring to rebel, and a new love interest in the person of THIS guy.
That's right, Daniel Greene, the arm-wrestling cyborg from Sergio Martino's HANDS OF STEEL, which is a much, much stranger movie than either MISTRESS OF THE DARK or IT CONQUERED THE WORLD could ever hope to be.
But I digress. Even though ELVIRA is ostensibly a movie about being true to yourself, it's hard to get a read on what the main character is about. When you first meet her, she makes it pretty clear that she hates her job AND the movies she has to watch for it. Later in the film, when she learns that her suitor operates the local movie theater, she urges him to run a midnight program with the shlocky movies she has been toting around in the trunk of her car. We catch some of her act, in which she joyfully heckles ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES from her signature velvet fainting couch, but that movie is itself an act of heckling, and doesn't tell us much. If you're like me, you kind of want Elvira to champion these movies instead of seeing them as an albatross around her neck; for her ribbing of them to be tempered with reverence. Which it sometimes is, and sometimes isn't. And you kind of want her love of horror to tie in to her essential, indomitable difference from normal people. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem at all impressed by Great Aunt Morgana's gothic digs, or even her own magical origins. She only sees her newfound powers as another way of getting enough money to go to Vegas.
Incidentally, the showgirl thing is autobiographical for the star and co-writer, who started dancing at The Dunes when she was only 17. Peterson is also really from Kansas, like her character in the movie, so you'd think this story was wide open for exploring themes of self-acceptance and the embrace of originality. The fact that Elvira is an orphan isn't even mentioned until half way through the plot, when more is revealed about Morgana, and this just feels like a huge missed opportunity. Elvira might have been wondering all her life why she's so different, and where she came from, as she doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. She might have found validation in the search for fantastical escape that genre fans have in common, which is reflected here in the wild turnout for the midnight movie extravaganza at the local theater. But instead, at the beginning, middle, and end of the journey, Elvira remains exclusively focused on getting the money to go to Vegas. Please don't mistake me for looking down on that ambition! The lady can twirl a mean pair of tassels. But still, I just wanted a little more Elvira in my Elvira.
It shouldn't be, but Elvira's car is really the star of this movie.
I don't mean to sound naïve; obviously Cassandra Peterson really does love these movies, or else she wouldn't be, you know, Elvira. But MISTRESS OF THE DARK should have been a big opportunity to give us a little more than snark and sneers. It should have been an opportunity as big as PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE—after all, it was co-written by the late great John "Jambi" Paragon!—but the character is just not that well exploited. When various reviewers complained that there was not enough character development here, they really meant of anyone, because the cast is just too voluminous for anybody besides Elvira to get much individual screen time. But, I would have been happy with just a deeper dive on Elvira herself. I hear that she's trying to get a new movie made today, which may wind up being animated. She can sign me up for that, as long as she's serving something a little meatier than MISTRESS OF THE DARK.
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