Directed by James Signorelli. Starring Cassandra Peterson, Jeff Conaway, Daniel Greene, Kurt Fuller, Susan Kellermann, W. Morgan Sheppard, Edie McClurg, Ira Heiden. Horror/Comedy, USA, 96 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 10th December 2018.
TV horror hosts have never really been a thing in the UK. There were a couple of attempts, such as Dr Walpurgis back in the early ‘90s, but the idea never really took off like it did in the US. Perhaps if we’d had somebody as striking as Elvira (portrayed by actress Cassandra Peterson) to grace our screens then maybe things could have been different. By the time Elvira got to make her big screen debut with ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK in 1988 she was already a huge national star thanks to her weekly MOVIE MACABRE TV show, and a full-length feature film could only make her a global icon, right?
Well, we all know what usually happens when a TV character makes the jump into movies and unlike nowadays, when television and film are more closely intertwined, and actors can flit between the two, back then you were either a television star or a movie star. Only a select few – Bruce Willis being a good example - able to straddle the divide successfully. As such the jokes and the appeal of said character can be severely stretched over the course of a movie when you are only used to seeing or hearing them in short bursts. The script needs to be, at the very least, sharp enough to keep the flavour that appealed to TV audiences but with a bit more pace and an extra something that said TV audiences haven’t seen before. Cue a story that sees Elvira looking to raise the funds to keep her horror show on the air just as she has an elderly relative die and leave her a run-down house in the small town of Fallwell, Massachusetts. Fallwell is a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and is controlled by local busybody Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg – FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF). Naturally, Elvira’s vampy appearance causes upset wherever she goes and when her evil great-uncle Vincent (W. Morgan Sheppard - TRANSFORMERS) tries to get his hands on the book of recipes (i.e. spells) that was willed to Elvira things get really out of control. Monsters emerge from casseroles, the town fair goes off with a bang as the locals fall under the influence of Elvira’s newly-found talent for casting spells, which will come in handy as Vincent is a warlock and really wants that book as it will grant him great power.
Right from the off ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK sets a tone of sexual innuendo and naff monster movies. The film begins Elvira is showing a clip of Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (where, if you look carefully, you can spot a very young Dick Miller) – that the film is going to batter you over the head with for the following 96 minutes. Some of it misses, a lot of it sticks but all throughout Cassandra Peterson has her character nailed, hitting the big screen fully formed and armed with an arsenal of quips and put-downs that she delivers with all the relish of somebody who probably isn’t quite sure if they will get this opportunity again so is making the most of it. Of course, aside from her sparkling wit Elvira has other natural charms that play a big part in this movie – especially at the end when she gives us a glimpse of her Las Vegas show and a very special talent that probably took several takes to do – and yes, the dialogue is basically a slew of boob jokes but as the old saying goes – if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
And watching Elvira flaunt it is a wonderful cast of 1980s archetypal shit heel character actors, with the brilliant Edie McClurg doing her stock prudish battleaxe performance alongside Kurt Fuller (NO HOLDS BARRED/WAYNE’S WORLD) as a sleazy estate agent, GREASE’s Jeff Conaway, BEETLEJUICE’S Susan Kellermann and W. Morgan Sheppard all delivering on-the-nose performances (Sheppard mentions in the special features that the producers originally wanted Vincent Price for the Uncle Vincent role – hence the name – but they couldn’t get him, so Sheppard was next on the list, which he didn’t mind) and are a much more interesting ensemble than the younger cast members that make up Elvira’s new friends, which includes A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3’s Ira Heiden. Most of the younger characters are only there to give Elvira an excuse to get her cleavage out – either to impress the guys or encourage the girls – and get the older generation hot under the collar, and although the jokes do wear a bit thin towards the end of the film it doesn’t outstay its welcome thanks to the rapid-fire pacing and Elvira’s endearing personality.
Despite having a few special effects, such as the excellent ‘pot monster’, ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK doesn’t really benefit that greatly from the HD upgrade, but it is a very clean print nonetheless. Extras include a revised feature-length documentary on the making of the film that runs longer than the actual movie does and features interviews with several of the key cast and crew members, a revised documentary focusing on the special effects, several audio commentaries, storyboards and trailers, so it is quite a loaded package, and despite not being the funniest, sexiest or scariest cult movie you’ll ever see it does have enough charm to appeal to genre fans looking for a bit of silliness, albeit knowing silliness, and is probably broad enough to reach out to a wider audience able to put up with non-PC humour, groansome innuendos and macabre delights that are enough to give you the willies.