Elvira reclines on her couch
Above: 80s Horror-host superstar Cassandra Peterson as Elvira

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

🧛🏻‍♀️🧛🏻‍♀️🧛🏻‍♀️🧛🏻‍♀️🧛🏻‍♀️ Teens help a delusional woman maintain her sense of self-worth by keeping her company while renovating her ruined manse.

Horror host Elvira is wrapping up her television show and about to open in Las Vegas. Her agent has bad news: the venue insists on a down-payment of fifty grand up-front. Just as Elvira is absorbing this terrible news, she gets word that an unknown great aunt, Morgana, has left her the bulk of her fortune. Off she goes to Falwell, Massachusetts, hoping it’s a pile of cash. Instead, Elvira gets a ruined mansion, a toy poodle, and a recipe book that is not quite what it seems.

Falwell is a conservative town run by a bunch of grey-faced killjoys, focused on keeping teenagers at the back of the buffet line and one Jesus apart. Fortunately for the teens, help has arrived in a black beehive. Elvira pisses off prudes professionally, and she gets right to work trying to raise cash for her Vegas show by running midnight screenings at the local bargain theater. She could sell to creepy Uncle Vincent, but he’s not nearly as interested in the mansion as he is Morgana’s recipe book. Elvira is a talented entertainer but naïve and self-absorbed, so she doesn’t realize the danger she is in right away. But Morgana’s poodle Gonk knows the score and keeps the book out of Vincent’s hands until Elvira catches up.

A poodle with a punk hair-do, dyed fur, and studded leather collar

Now that’s a poodle.

Elvira, for those of you who never entered a grocery store in the late eighties or early nineties, dresses like Morticia Addams and talks like a Valley teenager. Elvira is a horror host for real, of course, although for the movie’s purposes she stays Elvira when off-camera. She is never at any point Cassandra Peterson or out-of-costume. This works in much the same way Pee-wee Herman never turns into Paul Reubens. The contrast between her slinky, sexy gown and Cali voice and mannerisms is part of the shtick. “I figured out that Elvira is me when I was a teenager. She’s a spastic girl. I just say what I feel and people seem to enjoy it,” Peterson once explained.

Pee-wee Herman and Elvira have even more in common. Both Reubens and Peterson are alumni of the Los Angeles-based improv comedy troupe The Groundlings. In fact, Groundlings are all over. Groundling John Paragon, part of the screenwriting team for this film, was also the writer for Elvira’s original show Elvira’s Movie Macabre and many of the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse television episodes. Other Groundlings include Edie McClurg as town scold Chastity Pariah and Tress MacNeille, the Warner Sister Dot, in a rare cameo.

Elvira promotes her show to teenagers at the diner.

Peterson thinks of Elvira as an old teenager, but the teens occasionally seem concerned for her mental health.

As a result, the movie plays the jokes for yucks. Elvira belongs on the shelf next to Strange Brew or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Director James Signorelli contributes to this. He’s not a movie guy. Instead, Signorelli made commercial spoofs for Saturday Night Live for thirty-five years. He gives Elvira a stagey, late-night television aesthetic which complements the comedy.

Elvira features her significant cleavage in both her costume and her jokes, but there are a few places where the movie takes a somewhat more serious tone. Several men consider her outfit to be an invitation and get handsy with nary a hello. She reacts to this just as you would expect: with immediate revulsion and anger.

A crowd of teen boys takes a picture of her undressing through her second-story window. She shuts the window on their fingers. The next morning, she sets them to work renovating the manse. The guy she is interested in, theater proprietor and local himbo Bob, is friendly, polite, and painfully shy, and requires a bit more persuasion. This Elvira does by cooking him dinner out of Morgana’s cookbook, a process entirely alien to her.

The town council reacts in horror to a polaroid photo

The town busybodies are predictably more upset that the teens have a naked lady picture than they are that it was taken by peeping through a second-floor window.

The groping and peeping put off one reviewer on Letterboxd, who felt sexual harassment was being played for laughs. I disagree. The theme, and there is a theme, seems to be about the difference between healthy attitudes towards sex versus controlling, entitled, or predatory behavior. When Elvira gives the teens their own place, the boys spend more time hanging with girls and less time in Elvira’s window.

Sketch comedy translates poorly to feature length, and the horror-host bit almost never does. For all of its light-hearted hamminess, this movie is an achievement. I will absolutely pack Elvira: Mistress of the Dark for my desert-island vacation.

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