Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (25th December 2018).
The Film

Elvira – Mistress of the Dark (James Signorelli, 1988)

In a television studio, after her show Elvira’s Movie Macabre has been recorded, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) is introduced to the new head of the network, Earl (Lee McLaughlin). Early directs lewd comments towards Elvira and grabs at her breasts; in response, Elvira assaults Early and quits her job.

Elvira’s agent, Manny (Charles Woolf), tells her that she has an opening for a show in Las Vegas but the show must be self-financed, and it will cost Elvira a cool $50,000 to stage. Desperate for the cash, Elvira sees dollar signs in her eyes when she receives a telegram telling her that her great aunt, whom Elvira has never met, has passed way and Elvira must attend the funeral and the reading of the will in Fallwell, Massachussetts. (‘I didn’t know I had a good aunt, much less a great one’, Elvira asserts in astonishment.)

Elvira drives to Fallwell but when she gets there, her car breaks down. She is trapped in the small town until the vehicle can be repaired. She takes a room at the hotel run by Mr and Mrs Meeker (William Duell & Pat Crawford Brown) and visits the local bowling alley, where she gets into a fight with a couple of drunks before being saved by Bob Redding (Daniel Greene), the hunky but dim-witted owner of the local picturehouse. Elvira’s conversation with Bob provokes the ire of Patty (Susan Kellerman), the owner of the bowling alley, who has eyes for Bob.

At the reading of her great aunt’s will, Elvira meets her long lost uncle Vincent (William Morgan Sheppard). Elvira is disappointed that her aunt has left Elvira no money – but has instead bequeathed to her great niece her rundown house, her poodle Algonquin and her ‘book of recipes’. However, unbeknownst to Elvira, the latter is actually a book of spells, and Vincent, a warlock, is desperate to get his hands on it.

Elvira shaves and dyes the hair of Algonquin so that he resembles a doggy punk rocker; she also renames him ‘Gonk’. Elvira also finds no shortage of local young men who are willing to volunteer to help her decorate her great aunt’s house. Elvira is pleased at this, as she plans to sell the house in order to raise the money for her show in Las Vegas. In her car, she has reels of footage from vintage monster movies, and she also comes up with a plan to raise money by showing these films in Bob’s cinema – with live accompaniment from Elvira herself.

One night, trying to seduce Bob, Elvira cooks a recipe from her great aunt’s ‘cookbook’; the outcome is a monster, which tries to maul Bob and Elvira. Elvira realises that the ‘cookbook’ is something else, and investigating the attic of her aunt’s house, Elvira and Bob find a letter from Elvira’s aunt. The letter states that Elvira’s mother was a powerful witch whose powers were coveted by her brother, Vincent. Elvira’s mother’s ‘familiar’ was the poodle, Gonk; when Vincent killed Elvira’s mother, Elvira was raised as an orphan.

Meanwhile, the town council – especially Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg) – become angered at Elvira’s appearance in their town, claiming that she is corrupting the town’s youth. When Elvira uses her aunt’s ‘cookbook’ to cook up a recipe that leads to the town’s Morality Club shaming themselves at their annual picnic, the town council retaliates and has Elvira arrested for witchcraft. As it seems that Elvira will be burnt at the stake as a heretic, will she be able to escape from her captors, defeat Vincent and somehow gain enough money to stage her show in Las Vegas?

Former Las Vegas showgirl, and one time paramour of both Elvis Presley and Tom Jones, actress Cassandra Peterson created her iconic role of Elvira after auditioning for the role of horror host for KHJ-TV Los Angeles; Peterson was following in the footsteps of the original host of KHJ-TV’s horror show Fright Night, Larry Vincent (on whom Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent in Tom Holland’s 1985 horror-comedy picture Fright Night was based), and those who ‘filled in’ after his death in 1975, including Robert Foster and Moona Lisa. Peterson and her friend Robert Redding devised the character of Elvira, which married an appearance similar to Vampira (so much so that Maila Nurmi, the creator of Vampira, pursued legal action against Peterson) with a very 1980s ‘Valley Girl’ persona (of the kind satirised in Frank Zappa’s song ‘Valley Girl’, released a year after Elvira’s show on KHJ-TV premiered). The result was a character that updated the Vampira shtick for the post-punk era. Elvira’s Movie Macabre originally ran for four years, from 1981 to 1985, though the character was, well, resurrected in a seemingly infinite number of subsequent shows and specials.

The Elvira show was filled with double entendres, and thanks to exposure through magazines and merchandising Elvira became one of the most internationally recognisable horror-related characters of the 1980s, alongside Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. (She was so recognisable that, living in the North-East of England where, prior to the release of the Elvira movie in 1988, we had no direct exposure to Elvira other than through encountering the character in issues of Fangoria and such, one of my schoolmates was obsessed with the character.)

Written by Peterson, with John Paragon (an associate of Paul Reubens who Peterson had met during her work with LA improvisation group The Groundlings) and Sam Egan (who had previously written episodes of television shows such as The Fall Guy, The Incredible Hulk and Quincy), Elvira – Mistress of the Dark was directed by James Signorelli. Signorelli had in the early 1970s pursued a career as a director of photography before becoming associated with Saturday Night Live where he specialised in directing the show’s memorable film and commercial parodies and, in the 1980s, moving on to directing features – beginning with Easy Money in 1983 and continuing through uncredited directorial duties on the second Police Academy film, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment in 1985, from which he was fired during production.

The film begins with a clip from It Conquered the World before cutting back to the studio of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, where Elvira is recording her ‘outro’ for the film, introducing herself as ‘the gal with the enormous… ratings’. Though Elvira is objectified, and jokes about her ample cleavage fly thick and fast (she describes herself as ‘The gal who put the boob back in the boob tube’), the character offers a strong representation of womanhood: Elvira is an independent woman who doesn’t need a man to define her, and she is very much not a victim. When the new owner of the station, Earl, propositions her (‘The ladies back home call me “Longhorn”. Guess why’), Elvira has a quick comeback at the ready (‘Does it have anything to do with your breath?’). When Earl’s harassment of Elvira becomes physical and he grabs her breasts (‘It’s milkin’ time’), she assaults him and quits her job. (‘You said she was a bimbo’, Earl moans to the studio manager, Rudy.)

The primary targets of the film’s satire are moral entrepreneurs and those who create outrage in order to justify their repressive actions. Arriving in Fallwell, Elvira is judged by her appearance and called ‘the Antichrist’ by one elderly woman. When she tries to book a hotel room with the Meeker family, Mrs Meeker (Pat Crawford Brown) declares that ‘I know what you pinko, heavy metal weirdos do to motel rooms. I read all about it in The Star’. After their first meeting, Bob tells Elvira that Fallwell’s town council ‘has this mortal fear that somewhere, somehow, someone in Fallwell is having a good time’. Bob informs Elvira that the picturehouse he owns and operates is only allowed to show ‘G’ rated movies. (‘There’s nothing wrong with “G’ rated movies’, Elvira respond, ‘as long as there’s lots of sex and violence’.) At a council meeting, Chastity Pariah refers to Elvira as ‘a one woman Sodom and Gomorrah’: ‘If she’s morally unfit, then we have every right to do everything we can to drive her out of town’, Chastity tells the other members of the council. At the Fallwell Morality Club Annual Picnic, Elvira gets her own back when she uses one of the spells from her aunt’s ‘cookbook’, which results in the members of the Morality Club shaming themselves by stripping naked and attempting to seduce one another.



Video

Elvira – Mistress of the Dark is uncut and runs for 96:16 mins. Taking up a little over 23Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, the 1080p presentation employs the AVC codec and is in the film’s intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Shot on colour 35mm stock, Elvira – Mistress of the Dark is quite flatly photographed by Hanania Baer (the director of photography on a number of Cannon films of the 1980s, including American Ninja, Masters of the Universe and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Low light scenes seem to have been shot on very coarse film stock.

This presentation is based on a new restoration taken from a 4k scan of the interpositive. Detail is good throughout though optical shots can look a little funky. In well-lit scenes, there is a very pleasing level of fine detail in close ups; low light scenes don’t fare quite as well. Contrast levels are good, with rich midtones but a sharp curve into the toe which results in some slight ‘crushed’ shadow detail in some scenes. (This is most likely owing to the use of an interpositive as the source.) Colours are rich and consistent, with naturalistic skintones. Finally, the picture has a satisfying encode to disc, the natural structure of 35mm film being evident throughout the presentation.

Full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Audio

Audio is presented through a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. This is a rich and deep audio track, which demonstrates pleasing range. It is accompanied by optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing, which are free from errors and easy to read.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An introduction by director James Signorelli (1:10). Signorelli fudges his lines, to comic effect.

- An audio commentary with director James Signorelli and Fangoria Editor Tony Timpone. The pair discuss Signorelli’s involvement with the project and the creation of the Elvira character through Peterson’s performance and elements of makeup and costume. Comments are often heavily descriptive and there are some significant periods of silence, but the track is filled with some interesting tidbits about the production of the picture.

- An audio commentary with Patterson Lundquist, Elvira impersonator and judge on The Search for the Next Elvira. Lundquist, who has a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Elvira in her various incarnations, is the webmaster of http://elviramistressofthedark.com/. Here, he reflects on his personal relationship with the film and provides a high volume of trivia about the film’s production, including reflections on some of the film’s shooting locations.

- An audio commentary with Cassandra Peterson, Edie McClurg and John Paragon. Peterson, Paragon and McClurg offer vivid recollections of the production of the picture, providing a breathless commentary track which is riddled with anecdotes from the production. They reflect on their relationships with the other members of the cast and crew and the Elvira phenomenon more generally.

- ‘Too Macabre: The Making of Elvira – Mistress of the Dark’ (97:04). This is billed as a ‘newly revised 2018 version’ of the documentary about the production of Elvira – Mistress of the Dark. It’s shorter in running time than the same documentary included on the German BD release, though the exact nature of the differences between these two edits of the documentary remains to be seen. The documentary focuses on the Elvira phenomenon, discussing the origins of the character of Elvira and her success on television, with some discussion of the 1988 feature film. The documentary features input from Cassandra Peterson, producer Eric Gardner, John Paragon, Sam Egan and numerous others. It’s an incredibly indepth look at a pop culture phenomenon and highly recommended even to those who may not be fans of Elvira specifically but who are interested in popular culture more generally.

- ‘Recipe for Terror: The Creation of the Pot Monster’ (22:13). This again is billed as a ‘newly-revised’ version of a pre-existing featurette, this one focusing on the design of the monster that Elvira conjures up using her aunt’s ‘cookbook’, along with other elements of the special effects employed elsewhere in the picture. New interviews with Peterson and members of the special effects team – puppeteer Mark Bryan Wilson, sculptor Yancy Calzada, illustrator Larry Nikolai – and actor William Morgan Sheppard are intercut with archival footage. Amongst the revelations is the reveal that the filmmakers originally wanted Vincent Price to play the role of Elvira’s uncle.

- Image Galleries: Production Stills (14:40); Behind the Scenes (5:10), including portraits of the cast and crew; SFX (11:10); Original Storyboards (4:31); New York Premiere (1:10); Miscellaneous (1:30), including tickets for the premiere and promotional material.

- Trailers: US Theatrical Trailer (1:49); Teaser Trailer (1:05).

Overall

Even as youngsters growing up in Northern England, where we had no access to Elvira’s Movie Macabre, by the late 1980s the Elvira phenomenon had spread so wildly through merchandising and coverage in magazines that the character was instantly recognisable to myself and my friends. Though I have vague recollections of watching Elvira – Mistress of the Dark when it first hit VHS, the film didn’t make a huge impression on me at the time. Revisiting the film again, approximately 30 years after my last viewing, it strikes me as a very flatly-shot picture that is nevertheless held together by some very strong performances – particularly Peterson’s pivotal role as Elvira herself. The depiction of Elvira seems ahead of the curve when placed in the context of 1980s cinema too: there’s a wonderful moment towards the end of the picture where Elvira steps out in a scantily clad outfit but carrying a huge weapon, the composition recalling the iconography associated with 1980s action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Where, other than in female-oriented genres, most 1980s movies revolved around depictions of male action heroes, Elvira offers a counterpoint to this: Elvira is a spunky independent woman, arguably a strong female role despite the manner in which she is objectified (albeit in a very self-aware way). It’s hard to remember that this was several years before Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) and almost a decade before Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) – to cite but two American pictures which are often claimed to have shifted the manner in which women were represented onscreen.

Elvira’s battle within the picture is as much with the petty-minded, repressive town council as it is with the evil warlock, Elvira’s Uncle Vincent. The film’s depiction of the repressive town council is an on-target skewering of petty bureaucracy. (For an undefinable reason, it reminded me of the depiction of the committee which oversees the maintenance of the town cemetery in Robert Aickman’s short story ‘Residents Only’.)

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release of Elvira – Mistress of the Dark contains a solid presentation of the main feature. This is supported by some excellent contextual material: the feature length documentary about the Elvira phenomenon is recommended not just for fans of Elvira but for anyone interested in popular culture more generally, whilst the commentary tracks (particularly the track by Patterson Lundquist) are filled within information about the production of the picture.

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