ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK (1988)
Upon arriving in a small town where she has inherited a rundown mansion, a famous horror hostess battles an evil uncle and townspeople who want her burned at the stake.
Nobody asked for an Elvira road movie through small-town America, but I doubt anyone complained much either. A self-styled horror hostess with the mostest, Cassandra Peterson’s snarky, bouffant-clad altar-ego had been a fixture of US television since the early 1980s; a fast-quipping precursor to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax. After seven years of riffing on public domain genre films and cracking the frequent boob jokes (a brand of humour she fine-tuned into an art form), it was high time Elvira made the transition to the big screen. The resulting 1988 movie, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, is the halfway point between the pastel Goth of early Tim Burton and Dolly Parton’s Rhinestone (1984), a similarly clumsy but endearing fish-out-of-water film starring America’s other buxom pop-culture legend.
Elvira (Peterson) is hitting the road to make a name for herself in Las Vegas after kicking her handsy TV producer to the curb. The downside: it turns out she’s $50,000 short of what she needs to start her Vegas show. The upside: her great-aunt Morgana has just passed away and left a hefty chunk of her estate to Elvira. With this in mind, Elvira heads to claim the inheritance in the puritanical town of Fallwell, Massachusetts, where her brand of raunchy double-entendres and generous cleavage doesn’t mesh well with the hostile and conservative town council. To make matters worse, Morgana didn’t bequeath Elvira any cash; instead, she’s inherited a seemingly haunted house, a mysterious cookbook, and a toy poodle named Algonquin whom she promptly renames Gonk after giving him a punk rock makeover.
The Vegas mission is put on hold in favour of a half-baked romantic subplot and some typical mid-‘80s teen movie antics. Not that it’s all bad; there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching a gaggle of New England boys peeking through windows à la Animal House (1978), rock ‘n roll house redecorating montages, and puritanical adults with names like Chastity Pariah bemoaning Elvira’s famously revealing wardrobe. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that a good two-thirds of the jokes are about men staring and/or lunging for Elvira’s large chest, and boob-joke exhaustion does eventually set in. But it’s hard not to be at least a little won over by the film’s total lack of seriousness.
The idyllic air comes to a halt soon enough, however as it becomes clear that, beneath the B-list ‘80s comedy wackiness, there lurks plenty of equally of-its-time horror cheesiness. The conservative town leaders and Elvira’s great-uncle Vincent (W. Morgan Sheppard) is gradually revealed to have more sinister intentions than they let on, and Elvira’s cookbook becomes a central object in a supernatural conspiracy brewing beneath the town’s placid façade.
Like Rhinestone, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark isn’t interested in subverting expectations, but in taking pleasure from embracing tropes in a way that’s warm and charming. It’s dictionary definition comfort viewing: a movie that brings nothing new to the table but milks tried-and-true gags and a breezy atmosphere for all they’re worth. Given the rapid-fire pacing of Elvira’s sarcastic cracks, there are plenty of misfires, but it’s hard not to at least be charmed by the relentless efforts to keep you grinning.
It’s a product of the Airplane II (1982) school of comedy: much of its appeal lies in referencing better movies and it’s only occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious, but with gags and double-entendres flying so fast you barely have time to remember the ones that fall flat. Of course, when a joke does land, it’s one for the record books; perhaps the most iconic exchange of the entire film, and the one most representative of its sense of humour, involves Elvira’s love interest Bob (Daniel Greene) accidentally dropping something on her head and asking with concern “how’s your head?” Her perfect response: “well, I haven’t gotten any complaints yet.”
The latter half of Mistress of the Dark leans into its horror elements and this’s clearly where it shines the most, disembodied hands and conjuring spells fitting more comfortably into Elvira’s line of work. As the plot becomes increasing gonzo, the freshness of the movie finally shines through. It’s hard not to giggle at the barrage of flying body parts, soup monsters, and animal transformations usually reserved for films like Evil Dead II (1987). One may wonder if it’s too little too late, but then someone gets a high heel shoe flung at and lodged into their forehead, and suddenly all criticism becomes moot.
With the exception of the final half-hour of campy gore, there’s an element of safeness that permeates most of the film. When you get down to it, the problem lies in the ill-advised decision to take an Elvira feature film in the direction of a quaint fish-out-of-water comedy instead of a more daring and playful approach like Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) did a few years later. A pleasantly familiar movie is better than a boring one, however, and there’s more than enough silly charm to Elvira herself to keep things lively… even when the movie around her feels more derivative than she deserves. Case in point, when the film’s disparate plot threads finally culminate in a Las Vegas showstopper with shirtless male back-up dancers, twirling nipple tassels, and the obligatory ‘80s white-person rap. For any other public figure, this would come off as OTT and crass. For Elvira, it’s just another day on the job.
USA | 1988 | 96 MINUTES | COLOUR | 1.85:1 | ENGLISH
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a physical disc was unable to be provided in time for a review of this Blu-ray many extras, which are listed below.
director: James Signorelli.
writers: Sam Egan, John Paragon & Cassandra Peterson.
starring: Cassandra Peterson, W. Morgan Sheppard, Daniel Greene, Jeff Conaway, Susan Kellerman & Edie McClurg.