Monday, October 30, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Elvira: Mistress of the Dark

Film: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s a particular genre of local television in which bad horror and science fiction movies are hosted by someone dressed up in a campy costume. The person in question will have a silly name, show movies that are mostly unintentional comedy, and tend to have a dedicated cult following. A few of these have some national attention. Around Chicago, if you were into those movies, you grew up with the Son of Svengoolie. But nationally, no one was more famous than Elvira (played by Cassandra Peterson). A movie starring her was inevitable, and in 1988, we got Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

If you’re somehow not familiar with our titular character—and I use the word “titular” intentionally—Elvira’s main schtick was that she dressed in a barely-fitting black dress that could hardly contain her substantial assets. She was (and still is) more or less Vampira, or for those who don’t understand that cultural reference, an extremely sexed-up version of Morticia Addams. She speaks in double entendre and bad puns. The entire character is a lot of fun and purely camp, and that’s a large part of the fun as well.

It's important to know that, because if you go into Elvira, Mistress of the Dark thinking this is going to be a serious horror movie or that there are going to be actual scares, you’re looking in the wrong place. Additionally, if you’re expecting anything more than implied nudity, you’ll be disappointed as well. Cassandra Peterson was pure sexpot at her height, but to my knowledge, she never did a nude scene.

The plot is, of course, paper-thin. Elvira has a minor television show, but she walks when she is blatantly harassed by the station owner. Her agent tells her that she can get a deal in Las Vegas, but to do so she needs to put up $50,000. Coincidentally, her great aunt has just passed away in a small, conservative town in Massachusetts. Elvira decides to go to see if she might be getting an inheritance that would allow her to start her Vegas show.

Ah, but it can’t be that easy, can it? She does get an inheritance—her great aunt’s dog (a poodle who she eventually turns into a bit of a punk icon), her recipe book, and the house. Her great uncle Vincent (W. Martin Sheppard) wants that book, though, and does what he can to get it. Why? Because it’s not actually a recipe book; it’s a spell book and the spells actually work. Nuttiness ensues as Elvira discovers that the spells actually work, the local townspeople, lead by Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg), Patty (Susan Kellerman), and Mr. Glotter (Kurt Fuller) try to get rid of Elvira, and Uncle Vincent does his best to get the spell book so that he can take over the world.

Honestly, a substantial amount of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is designed specifically to show off Cassandra Peterson’s cleavage. This is clearly something that is baked into the narrative, particularly since about half of the jokes and comments about her cleavage come from her. There is, of course, a love story of sorts as Elvira romances local beefcake Bob (Daniel Greene), and there are events that are specifically designed to take the piss out of more conservative elements of society. The most obvious of these is when Elvira takes revenge on the city council by slipping them an aphrodisiac into the local potluck.

This kind of camp is going to come with a lot of misogyny based on the year that it came from. This isn’t a surprise, but it hasn’t really aged well. In the 1980s, one of the ways to deal with open misogyny was to lean into it—if the jokes come from her, she’s in control of the jokes. If she’s pointing to her tits, it mentions the elephant in the room in a way that at least attempts to come across as not horrible. That aspect hasn’t aged well, but it’s not the fault of the movie or of Peterson.

What has aged well, though, is everything else. Elvira is, for better or worse, timeless. She’s a lot of fun and she’s fun in exactly the way she intends to be. The same was true of Son of Svengoolie and most of the campy horror hosts. But there’s a reason that Elvira was known around the country, and it’s not just her bra size.

Why to watch Elvira, Mistress of the Dark: It’s goofy, campy fun.
Why not to watch: The misogyny hasn’t aged very well.


  1. I love Elvira. She's awesome and still looking good by the way.

    1. Yeah, she's the perfect combination of funny and cheesy. Love her.