“Spook Show 2019 – 10: Elvira – Mistress of the Dark (1988)” by Richard F. Yates
For my final Spook Show review of 2019, I had a tough choice to make. Do I go with an absolute horror classic, something that helped define the entire horror genre (like Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931)) or do I tackle one of the 1980’s milestone films that helped revitalize and modernize the genre for more sophisticated audiences (like The Lost Boys (1987) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)), or perhaps I could look at a weird film that, inadvertently, affected both horror visuals AND the public conscience while tackling a hard hitting topic, such as the connection between psychology and witchcraft (like Haxan (1922)), or…. Oh, screw it… I’m just gonna watch Elvira!
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual DVD that I watched. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Elvira – Mistress of the Dark is a 1988 (my DVD says “1987”, but everywhere else says “1988,” so I’m bowing to peer pressure) comedy / horror film, which I think can comfortably called “goof-ball,” without hurting anyone’s feelings. To be fair (and balanced), the movie is pretty corny for most of its run-time, and even juvenile in a few spots. We get fart jokes, we get nose-picking jokes, and we get more “boob” jokes than you can shake a pair of maracas at! For anyone familiar with Elvira, this film is right smack in the middle of her wheelhouse. It’s corny, full of bad puns, and rather naughty, without being downright ADULT. Elvira came to prominence as a “horror host” on late-night television, but eventually transitioned to VHS videos as the “Video Store Boom” was sweeping the nation---and in a fairly short amount of time, Elvira became a major BRAND all on her own, with her image featured in comic books and music CDs and pinball machines and with guest appearances on everything from CHiPs to RuPaul’s Drag Race!
Elvira is played by actress and comedian, Cassandra Peterson, who was once a member of the infamous comedy troop, The Groundlings (where fellow superstars, like Paul Reubens---aka Peewee Herman---and Phil Hartman also made names for themselves. In fact, both Cassandra Peterson AND Phil Hartman have cameo appearances in Reubens’ film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), which was, of course, the first feature film directed by a new, hotshot director, named Tim Burton! Small world, eh!) Peterson invented the character of Elvira in 1981 as a horror host for an L.A. based show called Fright Night (no relation to the vampire film of the same name from 1985), but she was actually SUED by Maila Nurmi, the actress who had created the character, Vampira, back in the 1950s! (There is a great MonsterTalk episode on Vampira, which I highly recommend, and some of this Vampira vs. Elvira mayhem is covered in the entertaining documentary, American Scary (2006), which is a comprehensive history of the “horror host” phenomena! A very fun film!) However, despite Nurmi's claim the Peterson stole her ideas from Vampira, the lawsuit went in Peterson’s favor, and she was allowed to continue using her Elvira character.
Now, as for THIS film, Elvira – Mistress of the Dark, for those who have never seen it, here is the premise: Elvira is working as a horror host for a low budget channel, but has her eyes set on opening an act in the HEART of glitz and success: Las Vegas! After being groped by the station’s new owner, who she quickly fights off, sending him flying into the middle of a live news broadcast, Elvira quits. Talking to her manager about moving on to the Vegas show, she discovers that, in order for the show to get off the ground, she needs to come up with FIFTY THOUSAND BUCKS to help fund the production---but she’s “flat” broke… (Sort of…) Her manager asks if she can get her job back, to help make the money needed to pay for her show, but Elvira says:
“I’m never working for that sleaze-ball again! …I’ll just have to find another sleaze-ball…”
(And this is the level of humor we’re dealing with here. For ME, a guy who loves grandpa jokes, and I’m a grandpa now, so it’s legal, this is funny stuff!)
Anyway, just as Elvira says she really needs the money, a telegram arrives saying her Great Aunt Morgana has died, and that Elvira needs to come to a small town, near Salem, Massachusetts, for the reading of the will. In a classic 4th-wall break, Elvira looks right at the camera at this point and says how perfect the timing was for this inheritance to show up right then! And, with this as our movie’s plot---Elvira needs money to start her career in Vegas, and a wealthy old aunt just happens to drop dead right at the opportune moment---the Mistress of the Dark hits the road (to a super-cheesy ‘80’s metal-pop soundtrack) to seek her fortunes.
From here, the movie gets a bit weird… Instead of a bunch of money, Elvira inherits her aunt’s house, her poodle (who Elvira gives a punk-rock make-over), and her “recipe” book. (Great Aunt Morgana was, naturally, a witch, so her "recipe" book is actually a powerful book of spells.) Elvira then encounters obstacles to her attempts to fix up and sell the house she has inherited in the form of an evil warlock uncle (who wants the aunt’s spell book), a coalition of puritanical moralizers (who want Elvira run out of town because of her appearance), and a host of horny teenage boys (who just want to “HELP” Elvira fix up the house---while snapping pictures of her undressing through a second floor window.) Most of the jokes are cheap, the “special” effects are ridiculously outdated (and weren’t that great even at the time), and the acting is laughably cartoonish (aside from the genuinely menacing performance by William Morgan Sheppard as Elvira’s uncle, Vincent Talbot [a name derived from a combination of the actor, Vincent Price, and the character Lawrence Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man (1941)]).
One thing I should mention is that, although this film is stuffed to the gills with sexual inuendo and no small amount of sexist groping, for the most part, this is all “titillation” (sorry!) without any actual explicit sex scenes or even any real nudity. (Elvira’s outfit is revealing, but not TOO revealing…) The film is PG-13, after all. There is, however, a little blood, as the movie goes from comedy spoof to something resembling actual horror in the third act. (I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say, it’s nothing worse than you’d see on cable TV these days.)
So let’s recap: this film is cheesy, goofy, juvenile, badly overacted, with terrible ‘80’s music and awful, low-budget special effects…. But I still love it! I wouldn’t even really call this a so-bad-it’s-good film, it’s just a so bad that it’s BAD movie, but I get a kick out of the dialog (and the punk rock poodle is pretty funny, too.) The dialog is mostly goofy half-jokes delivered by Elvira after being set-up by one of the other characters, who is trying to be serious, and this style, the SET-UM-UP-KNOCK-UM-DOWN delivery, is funny to me. For example, in one scene, Elvira is trying to convince a bowling alley full of glum teenagers to sneak out later that night and come watch a midnight screening of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but they say that can’t because the principal of the school said he’d expel any students caught consorting with her. She then makes a dramatic speech about how the midnight screening is going to be her only way to make enough money to start her Vegas career, and that if nobody shows up, she might get so depressed that she hangs herself in the oven… She continues, asking the kids to remember her when she’s gone, and concludes her Oscar-worthy performance by saying this:
“…Tell them, when all is said and done, I only ask that people remember me by two simple words…. ANY two… as long as they’re simple…”
And then she collapses onto the bar and cries in a horrible heap, a mess of hairspray, fake tears, and whining. It’s a brilliant, captivating performance---that would make any moody pre-teen girl green with envy.
I think the key to GETTING this movie is to not take what’s happening seriously. This is, first and foremost, a comedy---as well as an advertisement for “ELVIRA” the BRAND. It’s not particularly kid friendly, considering all the sexual humor, but it’s also too nonsensical for anyone who is truly “grown up.”
The film does have some disturbing qualities to it, though, from a modern perspective, as Elvira (who is one of the co-writers) is constantly being assaulted, groped, propositioned, and harassed by horny men, although she seems to be able to handle herself pretty well, even when things seem like they might be heading for straight-up rape territory. The problem is that, though this might have been funny in the 1980s, times have changed, and rape humor just doesn’t work anymore. (Regardless, seeing Elvira send a large, predatory jerk crashing through a desk and onto the floor is rather satisfying.) Still, definite trigger warning for people sensitive to rape / sexual assault situations.
For my money, though, having been an Elvira fan since the 1980s, when I’d rent her ThrillerVideo VHS tapes from the local video store, I do still like this movie. It’s not particularly scary, as all of the really tense moments are broken up by bad jokes, but the level of SNARK in this movie is up there with some of the greats, like Airplane (1980) or Spaceballs (1987) or Weird Al’s UHF (1989). It’s a BAD film (although not as bad as Frogs (1970)----man! That’s a bad movie…), but it’s fun if you can get into the spirit of it. Intentional camp is tough for some people to take, and it might be a style of humor that doesn’t translate too well into the modern era, but if you like Elvira, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to like this, too!
Well, that’s it for this year’s SPOOK SHOW reviews. I know I promised 31 movies, but I only delivered TEN (again), and I apologize for that. I always think I have a LOT of time, and then I procrastinate until the deadline is right in front of my nose… Still, I’m happy with the films I covered, and I think, whether you like your spooky movies with a dash of humor OR buckets of blood (I really need to cover Bucket of Blood next year!!!), I’ve reviewed at least SOMETHING for everyone. I really am going to try to start my Spook Show 2020 reviews in January next time and see if I can’t get 31 reviews finished by Halloween. In the meantime, I’ll keep up with the crypto-art and book reviews and sharing photos of all the weird stuff I do with my family! (I have a DJ gig TONIGHT, in fact, so look out for a write-up of my experiences at the Longview Public Library’s Little Monster Mash sometime in the next few days---maybe Saturday or Sunday, ‘cuz I’m babysitting most of the rest of this week…)
That’s it! Now go read a damn book---or watch a spooky movie! Do SOMETHING!
---Richard F. Yates
And, one last time, here’s the list of ALL the Spook Show reviews I’ve written so far:
SPOOK SHOW 2019 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2019 – 01: The Shining (1980)”
“Spook Show 2019 - 02: Salem's Lot (1979)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 03: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror (2003)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 04: House by the Cemetery (1981)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 05: Beetlejuice (1988)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 06: The Sentinel (1977)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 07: Halloween (1978)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 08: The Best of Ghost Hunters (2009)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 09: House on Haunted Hill (1959)”
SPOOK SHOW 2018 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2018 – 01: The Exorcist (1973)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 02: Curse of the Demon (1957)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 03: Frogs (1972)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 04: Child’s Play (1988)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 05: The Haunting (1963)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 06: Shaun of the Dead (2004)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 07: Fright Night (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 08: Mr. Vampire (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 09: The Devil Rides Out (1968)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 10: Ghoulies (1985)”