Elvira: From TV Host to Psychotronic Star in Her Own Right

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Elvira is a character developed for an updated version of the KHJ-TV show Fright Night that would be called Movie Macabre. It was meant to be an updated version of The Vampira Show, which ran on KABC from 1954 to 1955. Vampira was played Maila Nurmi. (Actually, that was also a stage name, probably because few Americans could pronounce her real last name Syrjäniemi.)

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 woods, 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 a different host.

Lola Falana

Maila Nurmi was hired to help develop the new Movie Macabre. But she left when the producers refused to hire Lola Falana to play the Vampira character.

Falana would have been a brilliant choice from a creative standpoint. Unfortunately, from a commercial standpoint, she might well have been a terrible choice. She was a stunning black woman. (She’s still beautiful, but has been struggling with multiple sclerosis since 1987.) I would have loved to see her in that role. But I suspect that she would not have been as successful for two reasons. One is that she’s black, and I’m afraid that this really is a liability in this country. (I’d love to be proven wrong.) The other is that she wasn’t a comedian. But she was a great singer and dancer. (I think she puts Tom Jones to shame.)

Cassandra Peterson as Elvia

So instead of going with Lola Falana, Movie Macabre went with the very different, but equally impressive, Cassandra Peterson as Elvira. Peterson had experience with The Groundlings improv group. So she has a natural comedic take on the character and any production she’s part of. Thus, Elvira has become something of a Valley Girl persona mixed with the sexy female vampire archetype that Vampira created.

What I’ve always found strange is that as an actor, she is always listed as Elvira. As a producer and writer, she’s Cassandra Peterson. I suppose it is good for branding, but I’d really prefer if her movies listed “Elvira performed by Cassandra Peterson.”

Oh So Many Elviras

There was nothing terribly innovative about Elvira. As noted, the “sexy female vampire” had been done. It wasn’t just Vampira. 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 with 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.

Welcome to Fallwell

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 somewhere, somehow, somebody in Fallwell 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 too good a 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 explicitly given nothing by sister. But he is mostly concerned that he did not get the book of recipes because it “contains more power than your feeble little minds can even imagine. You see, it is not a normal cookbook; it is a book of spells. So he offers to buy the book for $50 — an offer Elvira accepts, because she is upset that she got no money in her inheritance (why she doesn’t realize that the house could quickly be sold for lots of money is unclear). Luckily, when “Uncle Vinny” shows up to get the book, Elvira’s new dog, Algonquin, hides it.

Making Friends — and Enemies

The second act consists of Elvira trying to get the 50 grand she needs to open her Las Vegas show. So she befriends the town kids, because she’s about the most interesting thing to ever come to Fallwell (and the boys are obsessed with her breasts. She also hooks up with the town hunk (Daniel Greene), who owns the town’s movie theater that can only show G rated movies. While cooking him what she thinks is a casserole from the recipe book, she instead creates a monster, which the two of them destroy with the garbage disposal.

Because of this, Elvira learns that she is from a long line of witches. And to get back at the mean people in the town, she takes the same casserole to a pot luck. Unfortunately, she had to make some substitutions, and the dish caused everyone to have a big orgy. As the town council later fights among themselves, Great-Uncle Vincent convinces them all that it is really Elvira’s fault. What’s more, they can get rid of her by convicting her of witchcraft.

A Very Happy Ending

They do, and attempt to burn her (and her dog) 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, but not before turning the three worst council-members into pigs. The rest of the town regret trying to burn alive Elvira and make friends with her. And for a complete happy ending, Uncle Vinny had no will and so everything goes to Elvira who is able to put on her act in Vegas, while her manager, the hunk, and dog watch adoringly from offstage.

One funny thing is that Shecky Greene is her opening act.

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

  • As noted, the film Elvira is showing at the beginning is the 1956 It Conquered the World — one of the first dozen films Roger Corman made. Despite it looking like a brainless cheepy, it’s actually quite a good film. Yes, the monster is kind of stupid looking. But it’s more believable than any creature you ever saw on any episode of any of the Star Trek versions. And the screenplay by Lou Rusoff is solid. Check it out! (Unfortunately, I can only find it on VHS. You can usually find it on YouTube, however.)
  • 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 blowed up real good at the start of the film, 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. But 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. Elvira is on her way to Paris to star in a can-can revue. The two 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). But before making it to the castle, there is a typically Cormanesque carriage ride. Inside, Dr Bradley gets his face stuck between Elvira’s breasts. Outside the carriage, things are out of control because the driver is making out with Zou Zou. This leads to one of the better lines in the film where Bradley yells to his driver, “I say, coachman, are you making out all right up there?!”

The coach arrives at the castle safely. On seeing Elvira, Lady Ema Hellsubus (Mary Scheer), Vladimere’s second wife screams. She says it is because Elvira is so pretty, but it is really because Elvira looks exactly like Lord Hellsubus’ first (now dead) wife, Lady Elura Hellsubus. This is not the first time someone screams or faints because of this. It is a running gag. Eventually Vladimere loses his mind it and trying to kill Elvira thinking she is Elura.

Upon entering the castle, Elvira is asked to remove her cloak, then her gloves, and finally (!) her shoes. This is because Vladimere is super sensitive to sound. But the noise that Elvira and Zou Zou make in removing them seem as though they are enough to kill the man.

When at last Elvira meets Vladimere, he is terrorized by her anachronistic piano playing. But then he sees her and — apparently recognizing her as Elura — runs to his room.

On the way to being shown her room, Elvira is treated to the obligatory paintings of Lord Vladimere Hellsubus’ evil ancestors. These include, “Captain Teodore Hellsubus: Vladimere’s grandfather: smuggler, slave trader, pathological liar, bad dancer, cross dresser!” For some reason, Elvira is lodged in Elura’s room which no one has entered since her “passing.” At this point, we are introduced Vladimere’s neice, Lady Roxanna Hellsubus (Heather Hopper). On seeing Elvira, she faints — but does a lot of screaming later one. She suffers from catalepsy, because someone does in any Corman Poe film.

As time goes on, things get more bizarre. Elvira finds that there is a torture chamber in the basement. But she doesn’t pay much attention, because she is supposed to get a ride from Dr Bradley in the morning. Unfortunately, he is called away to help some patients dying from the plague. So she goes looking for hunka-hunka burning love Adrian (Gabriel Andronache) — the stable stud. (Note: Andronache does not speak English, so all of his lines are dubbed to great comedic effect. It alone is worth watching the film.) Unfortunately, she comes upon Vladimere.

At this point, the plot is pretty much exactly Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. It turns out that the second wife is having an affair with Dr Bradley. They are gaslighting Vladimere. But it’s hardly necessary. The man already has a split personality. One of them thinks that his first wife, Elura, killed herself. The other knows the truth: that she was having an affair with his brother, so he walled her into the basement to die there. At first, he thinks that Bradley and his second wife, Ema, are really his brother and first wife and dispatches them (not killing them, but leading them to death). Then he thinks Elvira is his first wife and uses the pendulum on here.

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. This reference is hardly complete, and I will certainly add to it over time.

House of Usher

There are lots of aspects of House of Usher in Elvira’s Haunted Hills. I’ll just mention a few things, but there are lots more. One is that Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) is very similar to Richard O’Brien in Elvira’s Haunted Hills — with his intense sensitivity to sound. This leads to the strange scene in Usher where Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) is asked to remove his boots, which is parodied in Hill with so much slapstick. He also acts the same: knowingly burying their young niece (sisters in Usher) alive. The sister escapes in both cases, but she doesn’t manage to kill her brother in Hills. There is also the presentation of all of the portraits of their evil ancestors.

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 is also used 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: the same dialog is used about how the adultery is ironic.

These are just the things that occur to me off the top of my head. There are many others.

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 as much love as it deserves. 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 magician (the great Hazel Court). 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 much so 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 Vladimere 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 scenes in both films that even include 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.

There is also a reference that is so obvious that it doesn’t seem worth mentioning. The inn-keeper at the beginning breaks into the the room and says, “Here’s Jonah!” It is a reference to “Here’s Johnny!” from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But frankly, the joke doesn’t work that well. It does, however, start the film off right. After this, you know what you are in for.

But beyond that, it’s just a fun film. It’s surprising how well Elvira fits into the genre. And Mary Jo Smith (playing Zou Zou) is a great find. The entire cast is excellent, but Smith is something special. I would like to see a whole lot more of her.

I do hope that readers will add references in the comments. I will add them to this article and credit the commenter as much as they like.

Trivia

  • Jerry Jackson who plays the English gentleman who picks them up at the end of the movie also wrote and choreographed 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! According to Corman, the budget for House of Usher was $200,000 in 1960, which is $1.2 million in 2001 when Elvira’s Haunted Hills was produced. But I’ve heard it was actually $300,000, which would be $1.8 million. So Elvira’s Haunted Hills really was created on a shoestring.
  • Most of the cast came from the Los Angeles comedy troop, The Groundlings — which Cassandra Peterson has been a part of. It also shows why they were able to make such a great film with so little money.

Quotes

Lord Vladimere Hellsubus: [Overacting badly] 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, Elvira has moved to Manhattan, Kansas, which happens to be Cassandra Peterson’s home town. She lives with her Aunt Minerva (Katherine Helmond of the Soap television series and the film Brazil) 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 witch, 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.

I will be adding other reviews over time. It’s a little hard because I think most movie critics are totally useless. But a good reviewer — one who engages with the film, rather than trying to prove what a cineaste they are — can add a great deal to your enjoyment of film. That is, after all, what Psychotronic Review is all about.

–Frank Moraes

One thought on “Elvira: From TV Host to Psychotronic Star in Her Own Right

  1. 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…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *