Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2020-10-30 16:54

Written by: Sam Egan & John Paragon & Cassandra Peterson
Directed by: James Signorelli
Starring: Cassandra Peterson, Phil Rubenstein, Larry Flash Jenkins

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"And if they ever ask about me, tell them I was more than just a great set of boobs. I was also an incredible pair of legs. And tell them... tell them that I never turned down a friend. I... never turned down a stranger for that matter. And tell them... tell them that when all is said and done, I only ask that people remember me by two simple words....any two, as long as they're simple."

While Joe Bob Briggs will always be the horror host in my life, he wasn’t the first one I encountered, even if I didn’t quite know it. See, Elvira had always been something of a fixture too, appearing in TV commercials or flashing that devious grin as a cardboard cutout around Halloween, that magical time of year when routine trips to the grocery store became a spooky adventure. But little did I know Elvira (née Cassandra Peterson) was mostly known for hosting horror movies on LA television before becoming a national icon. But to me, she was also the star of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, one of those staples that graced the shelves of every video store within a 50-mile radius during my childhood. If this were your only exposure to Elvira, it’s safe to say you’d more or less get the gist of the character. Mistress of the Dark is one of the purest examples of a star vehicle, a movie that largely exists as a showcase for its star--or, more accurately, its star’s personality. And if there’s anything Elvira has plenty of, it’s personality, and Mistress of the Dark bottles up her zany antics and motor-mouthed double entendres into 90 minutes of madcap nonsense.

Having grown a bit weary of hosting B-movies on TV, Elvira has her eyes set on something bigger: Vegas showbiz! She’s already got one foot out the door when the station manager starts to sexually harass her, which sends her over the edge. It Conquered the World will be the last movie she hosts for this guy, because she’s ready to strike off and realize her dreams. The only problem? She’s flat broke. Salvation conveniently arrives in the form of a letter informing her that she’s a beneficiary of her recently-deceased great aunt Morgana’s estate in Falwell, Massachusetts. “I didn’t know I had a good aunt, let alone a great one,” she quips as she strikes off across the country, where she immediately runs afoul of conniving great uncle (and secret warlock) Vincent Talbot (W. Morgan Sheppard) and morality club president Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg). The small town isn’t big enough for all of them, and nonstop silliness ensues.

Sometimes when we call something a “star vehicle,” it’s really just a nice way of saying a movie has more personality than it does plot. Mistress of the Dark is one of those times. Its main plot--which finds Talbot trying to steal a book of spells from Elvira, who inherits most of the estate--all but takes a backseat for most of the movie, yielding to a slobs vs. snobs comedy routine that lets Elvira coax the stick out of Falwell’s ass. She’s a natural foil for Chastity Pariah, whose midwestern kindness is both geographically misplaced but also absolutely perfect as McClurg becomes a broad caricature of the moral majority, whose hypocritical posturing during the 80s deserved the type of mockery on display here (and worse). The barbs here are good-natured and silly, most of them well-suited for older kids as Elvira tries to liven up this uptight town with historical ties to the Salem Witch Trials (which is destined to figure into the plot the moment our favorite witchy woman heads to Massachusetts).

One’s enjoyment of Mistress in the Dark obviously comes down to how much you enjoy Elvira’s shtick and this particular brand of broad comedy. (I feel like there’s a very Elvira-esque pun lurking somewhere within the term “broad comedy.”) I personally find it to be a little silly but harmless: there’s a real kitchen sink approach to Mistress of the Dark that finds the screenwriters flinging every play on words and sight gag at the screen just to see what fits. It’s good for several chuckles and a couple of hearty belly laughs, especially when the humor actually makes a concerted effort to pay off a good punchline, such as when Elvira unwittingly spells “how to fuck” on the side of the town’s theater marquee just as Chastity strolls by, pearls clutched firmly in hand.

But it’s all good-natured enough that even the groaners are kind of amusing. Mistress of the Dark is the type of movie that often leaves you shaking your head in bemusement, much in the same way you treat a little kid telling corny jokes. It might not always be hilarious, but it sweeps you up in its manic, devil-may-care approach. Crucial to all of this is Elvira herself, who is nothing if not an infectious presence. She has an expressiveness that’s always leapt off the screen, and it does so here in spades. Mistress of the Dark is basically a live-action cartoon, making Elvira’s exaggerated expressions and outsized personality a perfect fit for this farce. Peterson throws herself into the role with aplomb, infusing the film with a delightful energy and revealing her gift for showmanship at every turn. If you’re going to build a star vehicle around someone, you should absolutely do it for someone who radiates stardom. Elvira’s blending of Old Hollywood glamour with gothic campiness and quick wit is enough to carry the film’s thin premise and shaggy plot to the finish line.

By the time the script circles back to the main plot to intertwine her various feuds into a recreation of the Salem Witch Trials, Mistress of the Dark becomes a fine example of the fun, harmless “horror” movie. It’s not meant to be genuinely frightening or unsettling; instead, it’s more delightful showmanship in the form of outlandish effects, foggy graveyards, and a fiery final showdown between Elvira and her mad uncle. Simply put, Mistress of the Dark fits right alongside the silly, fun horror movies Elvira has often championed throughout her career as a horror host. No matter how you may have eventually come across Elvira, I think most would agree that she’s become synonymous with that fun, celebratory side of horror that invites people to have a good time. Basically, if the infectious beats and playful lyrics of “The Monster Mash” could become a person, I’m pretty sure it’d look and act something like Elvira, and Mistress of the Dark is a fine example of a Halloween season party movie: it might be light on scares but it’s bursting with a carefree, exultant style of horror that’s fitting for this time of the year.

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