Elvira was a popular television figure in the 1980s. So, needless to say, I did not watch her. Her apparent schtick was to imitate Vampira and introduce B moves while wearing the lowest cut shirt possible and making jokes about her very large…collection of B-movies (hey, if she is allowed to make those sort of jokes, why can’t I?).
What Elvira actually represented was a sort of generational gap in television. Cassandra Peterson, the actress playing the character, rose to prominence just in time to take advantage of the numerous personalities who had grown up watching television and were able to manipulate it to their own gains. This usually meant that she was self referential and tried to get away with things that had the censors sweating. In the past, Vampira could only hint at her own sexuality. Elvira made it front and center, helping to break away trends that had become outdated. She even managed to create her own legion of followers (it is easy to see the creators of the legendary Mystery Science Theater 3000 watching her). Beyond this, she also took great pleasure in satirizing the relatively new goth phenomenon, pointing out it had less to do with any social movement and more with an aesthetic. Every single movement has that sort of clowning; Skaters have Bam Magera, Punk Rock has Green Day, and Elvira is the one for those who have a fascination with velvet clothes and make up. It brought a sense of fun to the whole thing, something that is usually missing from any such fad.
You can find an example of her show here (by the way, is anyone else having problems with embedding videos on wordpress? If so, please let me know how to embed again)
And then, having apparently found a cult niche on television, she went and made a movie: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Apparently, having exposed B-movies to a new generation, she decided to make one of her own. And the results show that, without the B-movies to host and mock, there really is not as much in Elvira’s arsenal.
Oh sure, the film is certainly a great amount of fun. Cassandra Peterson knows exactly what the appeal of her character is and does not try to hide it. She also appears to legitimately enjoy what she is doing. She is a natural comedian that knows all the ins and outs of her chosen profession. Several scenes goof on old B- movie cliches (a witch burn shows kids roasting marshmallows on the same fire used to incinerate a person, Elvira gets several spells wrong due to her use of modern slang, and the like). But what the film needed was not a retreading of old ground. The people who watched her had caught up with her; not staying one step ahead of her audience was a problem that she did not know how to overcome.
The film stars, naturally, Elvira. She is credited as herself. After quitting her show when a new owner harasses her, she seeks to get her own cabaret show in Las Vegas. After find that her great aunt Morgana (also played by Peterson) has died, she goes to a small town in Massachusetts to get what she hopes is a large inheritance. All she gets is a dilapidated house in a town whose puritan population wants nothing to do with her. Her great uncle Vincent (William Morgan Shepherd) wants a spell book (Morgana was a witch). She does fall in love Bob (Daniel Greene) who owns the movie theater, and tries to restart her B – movie festivities at his place.
What I descried certainly sounds enjoyable, yes? Well it is on its surface. Perhaps I enjoyed Elvira’s riffing of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Perhaps I enjoyed how the film seems to quote other sources by the second, including one bit that combines Flashdance and Carrie, and have it actually manages to make sense in contest. Or maybe just the character of in general (her of gigantic wit…see, I can make those jokes to, Miss Peterson) who acts through the film with a sort of “been there” mentality that would be utilized in the Scream series. The whole thing does maintain an energy that very few films can maintain. And the final scene…well, by now you have seen if for yourself. Even if it is not original, it is still more enjoyable than some of its counterparts.
Yet that does not excuse the sheer lack of originality in its themes. The whole dichotomy of directly using 80s sensibilities to challenge the 50s conservatism that was becoming popular again had already been done in Back to the Future. The direct lift of 50s cheesy horror and an analysis of said horror had already been done in Creepshow and The Twilight Zone. Even using horror for comedic purposes had already been done in Gremlins and Evil Dead 2. Unlike Elvira’s television show, which at least appeared to be trying new things and reintroducing certain trends to a new audience, what is presented in her movie would have been fresh on anyone’s mind sitting in the theater.
I don’t understand it, really. Actually, yes I do. Peterson does not really realize that film and television are quite separate mediums. What may seem ground break on television is usually not in film. She certainly got further than most other television adaptations do, because they still enjoyed the character and trying to explore new grounds. That allowed the film to maintain an energy throughout that Roger Corman usually envied. The film is also funny. But it is not the sort of groundbreaking thing that the character needed.