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Elvira Movies

Elvira, Mistress of the DarkElvira (Cassandra Peterson) is a character developed for the KHJ-TV show Fright Night. It was a standard of local television weekend programming where one or two horror shows would be aired along with a host. In my neck of the words, up in San Francisco, we had KTVU’s Creature Features with Bob Wilkins. There were roughly two dozen “Creature Features” programs airing across the nation. In Los Angeles, it was Fright Night with Larry Vincent. It ran from 1970 through 1979. But in 1981, it was revived with Elvira as the host.

There was nothing terribly innovative about Elvira. The “sexy female kinda vampire” had been done. There was, for example, Vampira (Maila Nurmi) who hosted The Vampira Show from 1954 to 1955. It was the prototype for the hosted horror film genre. In fact, Nurmi was brought on to produce Fright Night for a short time before she left due to creative differences. But even Fright Night had had a similar character back in 1973, Moona Lisa — played by newscaster Lisa Clark.

Elvira is by far the longest lasting of these characters, and it is not hard to see why. There is something very compelling about the character. Other than the excessive display of cleavage, Elvira could not be more wholesome. Yet the conceit of the character is that she is dangerous. But parents really can leave their kids with her to watch a horror film and not worry that they learn anything more dangerous than to treat everyone with dignity.

The Elvira Movies

In 1988, Elvira made her feature film debut with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Then, 13 years later, in 2001, a supposed sequel was made, Elvira’s Haunted Hills. Other than that it features Elvira, it doesn’t have anything to do with the original film. Both films are quite enjoyable in their ways.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is written by Sam Egan & John Paragon & Cassandra Peterson, and directed by James Signorelli. It has the look and feel of a made-for-television production. Even for the time, the special effects are primitive. But they were meant to be. The last thing you want is pretense in a movie that celebrates B movies of the past.

Plot Summary

It starts with a scene from the Roger Corman classic It Conquered the World. Then we find ourselves in a television studio where Elvira is the host of a horror film show. Sadly, her style is to put down these great old films. But as we will find out in the sequel to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the writers have a great love for them. Anyway, the television station has been bought by a coarse Texan who thinks this entitles him to make sexual advances on Elvira. So she quits. After all, she is going to be starring in a show in Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, Elvira’s agent tells her that the casino wants her to put up $50,000 before they will back the show. Oh, no! What will she do?! All hope is lost! Until a telegram arrives telling her that her great-aunt Morgana Talbot (Reference to Lyle Talbot?) has died, and she is a beneficiary in her will. So it is off to Massachusetts in her convertible.

Soon, she finds herself in the small town of Fallwell, “A decent community.” It is controlled by Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg) who lives in mortal fear that somebody somewhere is having a good time. I assume that the name of the town is a reference to Jerry Falwell, also known for his great concern that others are having a good time. But before Chastity can have much affect on her, Elvira goes to the will reading and finds out that she has been bequeathed her great-aunt’s house, dog, and book of recipes.

At the reading, she is introduced to her great-uncle, Vincent Talbot (W Morgan Sheppard), who is the primary villain. He is trying to get his hands on the the book of recipes, because it isn’t a cookbook; it is a book of spells. He offers to buy the book for $50 — an offer Elvira accepts. But thanks to the dog, Algonquin, he doesn’t manage to get it until the third act.

The rest of the film involves Elvira befriending all the local kids, seducing the town hunk, fighting with Chastty and the rest of the town council, and avoiding her great-uncle. Eventually, Great-Uncle Vincent convinces the town folk that they can get rid of Elvira by convicting her of witchcraft. They do, and attempt to burn her at the stake. This fails, but it does allow Vincent to steal the book. And then there is a fight between Elvira and her evil great-uncle. He dies, and since he had no heirs, Elvira gets all his money, allowing her to open her show in Las Vegas, where Shecky Greene opens for her.

It’s Silly, but Is It Fun?

It is a silly film — filled with bad jokes very much intended to be bad jokes. As such, it’s easy to go either way with it. Cassandra Peterson is charming as the most unthreatening sexpot to hit the screen since Pepé Le Pew. On the other hand, the film’s unrelenting inoffensiveness can be hard to take. And given that the film wouldn’t dare to offend, even the excessive breast jokes come off as tired despite their nominally being funny because they are tired.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark expects a great deal of goodwill on the part of the viewer. In this way, it is very similar to a good many Bruce Campbell films. And I think that’s how the film needs to be judged. Do you find Elvira’s act compelling? If you do, you’ll have fun watching her pretend to offend the squares who seem straight out of the 1950s. If not, you’ll probably find it tiresome.

It’s All About Elvira

The film manages to do something that is remarkable: not have a single memorable character other than the lead herself. (Well, the poodle is also memorable. And what a haircut!) Even the evil great-uncle disappears beneath the thinness of the plot. And he’s played by an excellent character actor. In fact, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is filled with fine and fun performances, most notably by Edie McClurg as the busybody town council chairperson, William Duell as the henpecked motel owner, and Jack Fletcher as the nervous lawyer.

There is more than enough to thoroughly enjoy this film. But it isn’t going to win you over if you’re skeptical. And it might well be a slog even for Elvira fans if they just aren’t in the right mood. But it succeeds in doing what it intends. And all things considered, that’s not bad.

Trivia

  • Elvira’s car is 1959 Ford Thunderbird. But the truth is that so much work has been done on the car that without being told, it’s very hard to nail down the year of the car any more precisely than to 1959, 1960, or 1961.
  • Joel, the smoking gas station attendant who gets blown up at the start of the film, was played by was played by co-writer John Paragon — who is also Cassandra Peterson writing partner.
  • The budget of the film was $14 million, according to Cassandra Peterson on the commentary on Elvira’s Haunted Hills.

Quotes

Elvira: Bloody Mary!
Server: No hard liquor’s served past eight o’clock. Do you want a virgin?
Elvira: Maybe… But I’ll have a couple of drinks first.

Elvira’s Haunted Hills

Although I can brook differences of opinion about Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the same cannot be said of its sequel. Elvira’s Haunted Hills is a classic that should delight anyone who loves psychotronic films. It is a loving tribute to the Roger Corman Poe Cycle.

Plot Summary

Elvira's Haunted HillsElvira’s Haunted Hills takes place in Carpathia in 1851. It starts with Elvira chained to a wall with an unknown figure placing bricks to wall her in. It’s right out of The Black Cat. But then we see Elvira wake up screaming — it was only a dream. (Or was it?) We find that Elvira is in bed with her maidservant, Zou Zou — played brilliantly by Mary Jo Smith. They are in a hotel, and the owner is banging at the door — telling them that it is after check-out time and he wants to be paid. Elvira and Zou Zou make a run for it.

Later, they pick up a coach on the road. It belongs to Dr Bradley Bradley (Scott Atkinson). He takes them to stay at the castle of Lord Vladimere Hellsubus (Richard O’Brien of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame). It turns out that Elvira looks exactly like Lord Hellsubus’ dead wire, Lady Elura Hellsubus. Much silliness follows until the third act when Elvira steals a key from Hellsubus and makes her way into his torture chamber.

At this point, pretty much every film in the Poe Cycle is referenced except for The Masque of the Red Death. There is catalepsy and burial alive, there is the unfaithful wife driving her husband alive, there is the grieving husband with a split personality. Mostly, it goes for The Pit and the Pendulum, even including the faithless wife left inside an iron maiden.

Thankfully, however, Elvira manages to use her bountiful breasts to escape from the pendulum. At the end, the only survivors are Elvira and Zou Zou. When they pick up another coach and tell their story, they find out that the castle they just spent the last two days at was destroyed a century before. So it ends with Return to Glennascaul, even though it was totally unnecessary.

Let’s Play “Spot the Reference”

Elvira’s Haunted Hills is a very well made film. And it really does honor these great Roger Corman films. There is not a lot that I want to say about it. For psychotronic fans, it would be fun if only to point out its many references.

I’ve decided to go back and watch all of the Poe films and see what references stand out.

The Pit and the Pendulum

Rather than say that Elvira’s Haunted Hill was a parody of the Poe Cycle, one could easily say that it is a parody of The Pit and the Pendulum. Of all the Poe Cycle films, it most closely follows Pendulum. The number of allusions is overwhelming:

  • Titles: the titles use that weird liquid effect that I discuss below in The Raven. It is actually used more for this film, but I associate it more with The Raven.
  • Flashback: the flashback scene is a direct allusion.
  • Crypt: the wife is walled in alive in the crypt.
  • Secret Passage: there is a secret passage in both films.
  • Adultery: his wife has an affair with his brother.
  • Adultery II: his wife has an affair with his doctor.
  • Iron Maiden: the wife is left to die in an iron maiden.
  • Ironic: I believe the same dialog is used about how the adultery is ironic. But I’m waiting for my DVD to arrive. I don’t want to rent it again.

These are just the things that occur to me off the top of my head. There are probably many others. Please let me know. And I will add to the list if anything occurs to me.

The Premature Burial

Other than the fact that The Premature Burial deals with the same subjects as we find in Elvira’s Haunted Hills, there isn’t much that links the two films. While they both feature a wife gaslighting her husband, Hills goes with the more standard take (as in Pendulum) where she is joined by her lover. It deals with catalepsy, but we get that from other films. Overall, Burial doesn’t get much much love. This may have something to do with it being the only of the Poe Cycle films not to star Vincent Price. Of course, I’m probably missing some references.

Tales of Terror

I see two allusions to Elvira’s Haunted Hills. The first is in the first story, “Morella.” In it, the dead title character takes over Vincent Price’s daughter and kills him.. In Hills, it is Lady Elura Hellsubus taking over Elvira who kills Lord Vladimere Hellsubus. The other is less direct where Elvira is walled into the torture chamber as Elura in “The Black Cat.” Otherwise, I don’t see much in the film.

The Raven

The instant Elvira’s Haunted Hills starts, it references The Raven, as it did The Pit and the Pendulum. It does it in an unusual way: with the credits. As you may remember, The Raven starts with Vincent Price reciting “The Raven” poem with various images, the most notable being different colored liquids mixing with one another. This is used as the background for the opening credits in Hills. However, it is done with computers and looks a lot better.

Other than that, the only other reference I noticed was the dangerous carriage ride. In The Raven, the driver (Jack Nicholson) is being control by an evil wizard. Typically, in Hills, the driver (Constantin Cotimanis) is distracted because he is making out with Zou Zou. It is hard to say, however, if this is explicitly an allusion.

The Haunted Palace

There isn’t much of The Haunted Palace in Elvira’s Haunted Hills. In fact, I don’t see much of anything. In the director’s commentary for Hills, director Sam Irvin claims that the first torture chamber (the one without the pendulum) was based on The Haunted Palace. Even with that comment, I don’t see much to it. But I’ll go along with it.

The Masque of the Red Death

In the IMDb page of film connections, The Masque of the Red Death is mentioned. But having just watched the film, I can see no direct references. It did, however, remind me of just what a good film Red Death is. Corman put off making this film because he was afraid that people would say it was just a rip-off of The Seventh Seal. The similarities are obvious. But the truth is that Red Death is no less a profound film — a serious work of art — as Bergman’s classic. This is likely why it doesn’t get the Elvira treatment. But I’m very interested to be proved wrong. There may well be a scene or line that I missed.

The Tomb Of Ligeia

Elvira’s Haunted Hills owes much to The Tomb Of Ligeia. The most obvious are the sunglasses worn by Lord Vladimere Hellsubus. But there are several other things. He is also very sensitive to light, of course. In Hills, it is hearing in addition to vision. Another is how Hellsubus effectively has a split personality; one is fairly normal and the other is homicidal. There is also the fact that his dead wife is not in her grave (although there is a wax replica in Ligeia). The most affecting connection is the hypnotism scene that even includes butterflies and the admonition against crying. This, of course, is followed by her sudden channeling of the dead wife.

Other References

There are other references as well. The speeded up segment at the beginning reminds me very much of The Comedy of Terrors, which although not a Corman film, is written by Richard Matheson and stars a number of Corman players, including Vincent Price and Boris Karloff.

But beyond that, it’s just a fun film. It’s surprising how well Elvira fits into the genre. And Zou Zou only adds to the fun.

Trivia

  • Jerry Jackson who plays the English gentleman who picks them up at the end of the movie was also wrote and chorographed the number in the middle of the film that ends with Elvira’s panties reading “Applause!”
  • Shockingly, Cassandra Peterson claims that the budget for the whole film was just one million dollars.

Quotes

Lord Vladimere Hellsubus: Oh, for the love of God! Why can’t they leave us alone?! Hasn’t my family suffered enough? What manner of fiend is it that would desecrate a human grave in their hunger for mere riches? Oh, why? Why? Why?!
Elvira: [Slaps him.] Snap out of it! God, what are you going for? An Oscar?

The Television Series That Wasn’t

Five years after the success of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, a pilot for a television series was created, The Elvira Show. It was written by Anne Beatts and John Paragon & Cassandra Peterson, and directed by Peter Bonerz (of The Bob Newhart Show fame). Anne Beatts was also the executive producer, so I assume it was mostly her thing.

In it, she has moved to Manhattan, Kansas, which happens to be Cassandra Peterson’s home town. She lives with her Aunt Minerva (Katherine Helmond) and a cat, Reinfield (voiced by John Paragon — the co-writer of the two feature films). Apparently, witches can talk to animals, so there isn’t anything special about Reinfield. They are joined by their niece, Paige (Phoebe Augustine), fresh from boarding school. Although she is a real which, Elvira makes a living being a very fake psychic. As usual for Elvira productions, it is faux dangerous, really teaching good human values.

The Elvira Show was not picked up. This is not hard to understand. The pilot is fairly good but hardly stunning. I can well see it developing into something great. And the pilot is worth checking out. I will tempt fate and embed a YouTube upload of it:

Conclusion

Elvira is not at all a serious character. But in her way, she fully represents what’s so great about psychotronic film. As a form, it can be silly or pretentious. But it is always fun. And although I wish her character wouldn’t talk about psychotronic films being “bad,” she clearly understands what is wonderful about them. And it is the same thing that is wonderful about her own films.

Other Reviews

I thought it would be fun to find other discussions of these films. Here are two reviews from OcpCommunications. It features some guy who seems as nerdy as I am. The reviews aren’t great. They spend far to much time simply repeating the best moments in the films. If you’ve seen the films, they are nice reminders. If you haven’t, they aren’t clear enough to ruin the films for you. But on the positive side, the guy clearly engaged with the films and appreciated them on their own levels. And that’s more than you can say for most reviews.

–Frank Moraes

Permanent link to this article: http://psychotronicreview.com/films/elvira-movies/

1 comment

  1. James Fillmore

    Funny thing — when I was reading the first review I thought the movie sounded a lot like “Rocky Horror,” in basic innocent naughtiness if not plot or style. Then in the second review it turns out the “Rocky” writer is in it! So clearly that was an inspiration too.

    The Corman Poe series is more appropriate for kids, while stuff with references to sexuality is probably better suited for young teenagers. (Sexuality onscreen can be a bit spooky before you have any interest in trying it out yourself.)

    There’s almost an influence link that stretches from those old late-nite TV movie hosts to today. They obviously were in the mental blender of MST3K writers. Whose work was probably a creative spur to “Daily Show” creator (and fellow Minnesotan) Liz Winsted, treating the news like Elvira et. al. treated those old late-nite flicks. And today our best TV comics come from the “Daily Show” tree.

    Unfortunately the wonderful John Bloom, who used to host terrific TNT showings of late-night horror films, has left us for the Dark Side, but that’s a long, complicated story…

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