Friday, June 21, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Elvira: Mistress of the Dark’

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Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a bawdy love letter to schlock films and bad taste. Dripping with single and double entendres, Elvira battles new age puritans and sleaze bags, all while still finding time to host a screening of The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. In other words, it’s fun and funny in a way that we don’t often see anymore.

Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) and Gonk

Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira is an icon of the horror and queer community for her love of bad films and choosing to live every moment of her life as loudly as possible. James Signorelli wisely understands that any movie about Elvira couldn’t be overburdened with plot and themes, or else they would get lost in her beehive. So along with Peterson herself, Sam Egan, and John Paragon, Signorelli gives Elvira just enough to do so as the movie chugs along but never too much where she can’t stop to flirt and quip.

Peterson’s creation is somewhat miraculous. Elvira, the character, was never meant to be anything more than a host for old z-run movies. Yet, Peterson took a slinky evening gown with a plunging neckline that stops just short of being obscene, a ceiling-high beehive hairdo, and some black nail polish and created a full-bodied character. She embodies the goth queen with brash honesty and a good-natured bawdiness, making Elvira stand alone in the cultural landscape.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a kitschy piece of meta-narrative. Elvira is the host on a regional television station of a show’s films that time and audiences forgot. She has dreams of Vegas and is almost there, but the casino is demanding $50,000 upfront. A not inconsiderable amount, especially since Elvira has just been fired for humiliating the station owner live on air after he tried to grope and proposition her.

The first instance of many of Elvira reminding men that her body is hers and not theirs. “Just because this house is up for grabs doesn’t mean I am!” Much like Dolly Parton, Elvira is a woman who likes big hair, big make-up, and big bosoms. But also like Pardon, Elvira makes it clear that when it comes to her body, while it may be okay to look, you better not touch. She’s a vivid reminder that dressing proactively is not in itself consent.

Elvira is accused of being a witch

Luckily for Elvira, her great aunt has died. “I didn’t even know I had a good aunt, much less a great one.” So all she has to do is go to Fallwell, Massachusetts, get her inheritance, and va-va-voom, she’s off to Vegas. But, of course, since this all happens in the first five minutes of the movie, we know it won’t be as smooth sailing as she hopes.

Complications arise when Elvira arrives in Falwell and discovers that the tiny little community doesn’t take too kindly to outsiders. By her very design, Elvira is a character who is a disruptor; her presence in the sleepy little town is causing trouble all up and down Mainstreet. While Elvira is busy earning the title of “Town Menace” without even trying, she discovers that her great aunt has left her a house and a recipe book, but no cash.

Distraught and stranded thanks to her car breaking down, Elvira is forced to become a member of sleepy little Falwell. She is not looking forward to that prospect and neither is the town matron, played by the wonderful Edie McClurg. McClurg plays a character with one of the all-time great names, Chastity Pariah.

The wonderfully named Chasity Pariah (Edie McClurg)

As the name implies, she is the town’s busybody and arbiter of all moral outrages. Amidst all the horror movie references and homages, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is about sticking it to the man. Many movies from the 80s were, but few had the panache, style, and gusto that Elvira did. As a result, the good townspeople begin to conspire to run our heroine out of town. But thankfully, Elvira has friends who help her out.

The teenagers are in awe of Elvira. She’s larger than life in a way these kids have never seen. The boys like her for obvious reasons, while the girls admire her. She is unashamed of who she is or her body. Continuing the not-so-subtle theme of agency, during a screening of one of Elvira’s movies, we see a boy in the crowd put his arm around Robin (Ellen Dunning), one of Elvira’s fans. She quickly makes it clear she doesn’t like him touching her, and the boy backs off.

Of course, Elvira is more interested in the town himbo, Bob (Daniel Greene), who runs the local movie theater. Though thanks to Chasity and the town council, he can only show G-rated movies. Elvira groans. “Oh, well, there’s nothing wrong with G-rated movies, as long as there’s lots of sex and violence.”

There’s also Elvira’s great-uncle, Vincent Talbot (W. Morgan Sheppard), who spends most of the movie trying to scheme ways to steal the recipe book from Elvira. It seems Elvira is from a line of witches, uncle Vincent being an evil warlock, and the recipe book is, in fact, a spellbook. Something that should have been obvious when Elvira opens it and realizes none of it is in English and the casserole she made using the recipe turned into a growling pasta demon. 

Elvira and Bob (Daniel Greene) fight off a casserole dish gone bad

Talbot isn’t the villain; he’s just the grease to keep the plot wheels moving. The real villain is Chastity. McClurg is an actress well known to anyone who grew up in the 80s. She usually played well-meaning airheads, but here she plays a conniving Karen, and much like Peterson, is having a hell of a time.

Soon, Elvira is being burned at the stake because she’s a witch, and this is Masschuttes, in a town named after a slimy televangelist. Bob shows up to try and save her while also delivering a line to Patty (Susan Kellerman), the other woman vying for his affection. “Patty, you’re not nice.”

It’s a simple message, but it packs a wallop because Elvira is never mean. Most of her personality is rooted in a working-class upbringing, a resigned but defiant demeanor in a world she knows to be unfair, but she’ll be damned if she’ll lie down and take it. With her padded underwire bra and 50s throwback style, Patty, like Chastity, is plain mean.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a rare movie that is both intensely horny on main but equally sweet-natured at the same time. Signorelli wisely allows Elvira all the room she needs to be as big and loud as she wants. There’s no holding the Mistress of the Macabre back, and honestly, why would you want to?

Images courtesy of New World Pictures

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