The Horror Hostess with the Mostest: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Before Joel, Mike, and the Bots mocked B-movies for Mystery Science Theater

Before Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax

There was the bodacious, curvaceous, outrageous Elvira.

The alter ego of Cassandra Peterson, Elvira sprang onto the scene in the early 80s, hosting late night horror flicks for a Los Angeles-based television network. It wasn't long before she busted—hold on to your butts; that won't be my last terrible pun, I promise—onto the national scene, her signature cleavage-baring dress and snarky, innuendo-laced commentary catching on with the public in a big, bosomy way.

With her flagrant sex appeal and snappy zingers, it's no wonder she became a household name. Bridging the gap between horror and comedy, Elvira is a larger-than-life gothic lady; at this point, she's almost as iconic as Morticia Addams and Lily Munster.

To date, she's racked up (yuk yuk) an impressive list of credits, hosting multiple incarnations of her Movie Macabre series (the most recent in 2014 for Hulu), starring in two feature-length films (Elvira: Mistress of the Dark and Elvira's Haunted Hills), and appearing on multiple reality programs.

Featured in comics, calendars, costumes, Halloween decorations, and even video games, it seems there are very few things Elvira hasn't touched at this point. Peterson may be in her sixties now, but she doesn't show any signs of permanently retiring her iconic character just yet.

With more than thirty years under her tiny, dagger-studded belt, why is the character still so beloved?

She's a perfect storm of horror and comedy tropes, for starters.

She looks like Vampira, with her audaciously low-cut, figure-hugging black dress, killer nails, and wild make-up. Elvira unapologetically oozes sex appeal and embraces her carnal side; there's no question as to why so many men tuned in to her show. Yet, she also refuses to let anyone slut shame her, and woe betide any man who tries to cop a feel when the Mistress of the Dark isn't interested.

On top of all of that, Peterson layers on a Valley Girl voice, a subversive awareness of the horror genre (and society in general), and a perpetually playful sarcasm. Elvira's the polar opposite of a damsel in distress: far too knowing to ever fall victim to the tired, hacky clichés of monster movies and mad scientists. She scoffs at monologues, snorts when the Final Girl trips over her own feet, and refuses to be impressed by Count Dracula's massive, er, ego.

She's also her own biggest fan—with unwavering confidence and boundless ambition—yet she never hesitates to poke fun at herself. It's always nice to see an over-the-top character who knows they're over-the-top and isn't too full of themselves to crack a great joke at their own expense.

It's a dying shame that so many of Elvira's early Movie Macabre episodes are no longer available thanks to licensing issues, but there's still plenty of the bodacious babe to go around. Here's a tasting menu of some of her greatest moments still available on DVD/via streaming:
 

The Werewolf of Washington

In this Movie Macabre episode, Dean Stockwell plays a DC reporter-turned-werewolf who has an affair with the President's daughter (apparently telling a girl, “I think your father is a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Jesus,” is a really smooth pick-up line) before licking a mad scientist little person living in the basement of the White House (?????!!).

Meanwhile, in her skit segments, Elvira announces her own candidacy for President and emulates Sarah Palin (“H'okay folks, there's only one way I know of ta kill a wharwilf. Ya gotta shoot it! … From a helicopter! OH LOOK, I CAN SEE TRANSYLVANIA FROM HERE!”).

Eegah

Richard Kiel (aka Bond villain Jaws) is a prehistoric giant named Eegah who fancies a modern teenaged girl. The plot is both ridiculous and more than a bit icky, with terrible performances all around, but Elvira's subtitled dubbing of Eegah's incomprehensible grunting is hysterical.

Lady Frankenstein

Dr. Frankenstein's daughter wants revenge for her father's death—and to put the brain of his brilliant (but old, and therefore unattractive, apparently) assistant into the body of a hunky (but simple-minded) servant so she can have her cake and eat it, too. Or something like that.

There's plenty of blurred-out nudity and more wardrobe changes than a Cher concert. In the skit segments, Elvira has to deal with her long-lost, knife-wielding teenaged son Elrick (Thomas Dekker) who has his eyes on Elvira's throne, er, loveseat.
 

The Giant Gila Monster

The hero of this silly black-and-white mega-monster flick is a hot-rodding mechanic who takes engineering classes by night, supports his mother and crippled sister by day, and is dating a French exchange student (Maybe? It's sort of unclear what the girl's whole story is.) when he's not busy saving the day and slaying the marauding beast with cans of nitroglycerin.

This one's great thanks to Elvira's goofy subtitles over the French chick's nigh incompressible dialogue. During the skit sections, Elvira's pet-sitting side business goes terribly awry when lizard Jorge eats radioactive reptile kibble and proceeds to eat the rest of the pets.

Attack of the Giant Leeches

Prior to her tragic real-life ending as a mummy—a story which genuinely breaks my heart—Yvette Vickers was the southern floozy snatched by giant leeches in this infamous B-movie classic. There's also a handsome game warden with great arms (as Elvira's quick to point out) and lots of twang and dynamite.

Meanwhile, Elvira is trying to fend off the IRS, embodied by a creepy little dude in a black bowler who keeps popping up in the oddest places. The resolution is unexpectedly fabulous.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark

In her first feature film, our voluptuous vixen inherits a spellbook, a haunted house, and a punk rock poodle from a great aunt just as she's quit her horror hostess gig thanks to unwelcome groping from a chauvinistic boss. Upon arriving in the quaint New England town of Falwell, Elvira gets right to work seducing the brawny owner of the local theater, encouraging the stifled teens, and revamping the haunted house so she can sell it and use the money to fund a Las Vegas show.

However, she finds some stiff opposition in the forms of Great Uncle Vincent (William Morgan Sheppard), a warlock with designs on her birthright/power, and the town's Moral Committee, headed by the uptight and prudish Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg).

Will Elvira ever see the lights of Las Vegas? Or will she be burned at the stake by townspeople who refuse to embrace her brand of weird and wild?

It's a fun, zany little flick, full of classic Elvira lines (“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.”), horror references, and just about everything you could want in a movie: Romance! Action! Comedy! Sexy casseroles! Witch burnings!

Elvira's Haunted Hills

It's 1851 in the Carpathian Mountains. Elvira and her French maid/servant/dogsbody Zou Zou (Mary Jo Smith) are trying to get to a Paris revue but end up stuck at Hellsubus Castle. There's a coterie of mad, bad characters ripped off from various Edgar Allan Poe stories moving through sets stolen from various Hammer Horror flicks. Turns out Elvira is the spitting image of the late first wife of Count Hellsubus (Richard O'Brien of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame), so of course some cliché gothic wackiness ensues.

This follow-up feature film isn't quite as great as the first, but it does have a lot of fun moments—my favorite bit by far is Adrian, the “Stable Stud,” who talks in a dubbed-over voice that doesn't quite match his lips—and fans of Poe and Hammer will enjoy picking out all of the references.

If you're looking for something fun and festive to put on during a Halloween party, something that doesn't require too much attention and will appeal to fans of old school horror and anyone who wants to laugh rather than scream, you can't go wrong with Elvira. She's always good in a lurch (hell, she's good anywhere, as she so gleefully promises) and ready to wish you some delightfully unpleasant dreams…

Can't get enough B-movie? Check out Angie Barry's discussion of her love for a hated genre in “Beauty & the B-Movie”!

 


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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