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Elvira’s Movie Macabre: Giant Monsters

(No longer in syndication; US DVD: 3 Jul 2012)

I have to admit I was a little surprised to learn that Elvira, née Cassandra Peterson, is still doing her horror-movie hosting routine. Not so much because its credibility depended on her youthful good looks (she still looks pretty good), or because she’d have run out of low-budget movies to lampoon (these evidently exist without bound), but because her show, Movie Macabre, seemed a product of a particular time and place.


Elvira debuted in the ‘80s, when cable was still in its infancy and the Internet was still a prototype, at a time when TV entertainment was beholden to the calendar and the tides. Certain times, to wit late on any night or midday Sundays, tended to be captive to the sort of fare Elvira poked fun at, unless you happened to have a taste for infomercials or religious programming. So it made a certain sense to have a host along to commiserate with you as you slogged through what was, at that hour, the best thing on television, even if it was still pretty bad.


B-movies being no longer semi-compulsory in this way, horror hosts have suffered these past few years. Count Gore de Vol has been relegated to running a vanity website and handing out autographs at conventions, for one. Elvira’s still going pretty strong with Movie Macabre, though the show’s hard to catch on satellite and seems to be mostly a DVD and Hulu phenomenon.


One notable revision to Movie Macabre in its current incarnation (it originally aired in the ’80s and ‘90s) is the restriction of its library to public domain films. Hence ,Elvira brings us titles familiar to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans and archive.org lurkers. She puts the movies down in the usual horror host way, but this feels a bit like force of habit. For one thing, what else would one expect from a movie whose owners couldn’t even be bothered to hang on to the rights to? (Though there are exceptions: Other Movie Macabre disks feature the likes of Werewolf of Washington, a clever Dean Stockwell Watergate-era political farce, and Night of the Living Dead, one of the most significant American films of all time.)


Also, why bother putting down the films at all if the audience has plainly sought them out? We no longer live in the days of broadcast TV, so we’re not watching The Crawling Eye because it’s a choice between that and a two-hour pitch for the Garden Weasel. We bought the disk, or clicked past hundreds of other channels to arrive here, so there’s no need to apologize for the films on our account.


Never mind that some of the movies in this collection aren’t even all that bad. The first, Attack of the Giant Gila Monster, for instance, turns out to be a perfectly serviceable, if unexceptional, small-town teenage coming-of-age drama with about three minutes of giant Gila monster thrown in just to earn the title. Attack of the Giant Leeches is—well, okay, it actually is pretty bad, as is Godzilla knockoff Monster from a Prehistoric Planet. But I defy anyone to dislike the good-hearted Teenagers from Outer Space, a farcical and strangely sweet paean to love blooming amid mutant, flesh-eating lobsters from another galaxy.


If Elvira rags on these movies, sometimes rightly, sometimes less so, she’s rarely snarky or mean-spirited when she does so, though the quips can come across as anachronistic or opportunist. (Back in 1959, as far as I know, “skidmarks” just meant the rubber tracks left by car tires, and “headlights” were just how cars got about in the dark, so when these words turn up in Gila Monster and Elvira uses them to bawdy effect, it feels irrelevant to the movie.)


Elvira’s humor is frequently quite late night. Though she couches her jokes in sexual innuendo—a dying art in these frank times—she definitely emphasizes the first term rather than the second, with, ahem, ample references to oral sex, anal sex, full release, and so on. It’s also amusing to me when her comedy’s referred to, as it often is, as largely inoffensive, because whatever your race, gender, or political leaning, Elvira’s antics are virtually guaranteed to raise an eyebrow at one point or another. (The Popmatters readership, by and large, might note be scandalized by her derisive Sarah Palin imitation, but how would you feel about the uproarious musical number about the use of blackface in Prehistoric Planet?)


She’s definitely an equal-opportunity offender, though, and isn’t afraid to put her own beliefs on the chopping block. Thus, though a vegetarian and committed animal rights advocate, her schtick for Gila Monster has Elvira as an indifferent pet sitter who lets several of her critters die out of regal neglect.


Elvira’s humor is quite a—am I allowed to say “broad”?—the alibi being that the jokes should be nearly as corny as the movies are. And granted, P.G. Wodehouse this is not, but presuming you aren’t allergic to the lowbrow there are plenty of clever laugh-out-loud moments here. (The satire of the Gilligan’s Island theme in the preview extras is one such bright spot, and in general the dozens of Movie Macabre sneak peeks are probably the DVD’s brightest feature.)


If I were to complain about anything here, it would probably be that Elvira’s commentary rarely delves at all into the substance of these films, the presumption evidently being that they don’t have any. But the giant-monster trope—the theme for this collection overall—is famously associated with Hiroshima, the splitting of the atom, and the dangers of technology more generally. So it was hard for me not to notice, for example, when Elvira doesn’t notice that Giant Gila Monster is set in arid Southwestern plains reminiscent of the Alamogordo backdrop for the Manhattan Project. Or that the titular mutants in Attack of the Giant Leeches emerge from the soup of the Florida Everglades after some atomic funny business at nearby Cape Canaveral. Or that Prehistoric Planet, the sole Japanese production, has the monsters rise mysteriously out of the timeless jungle, King Kong style.


In general, American monster movies see the monster as the result of our own folly; the Japanese output is much more likely to show the monster as coming from without. It would have been nice if some acknowledgment of these and other sociopolitical aspects of the movies had been offered. Then again, I suppose it’s tricky to make that sort of thing funny, and in any case overanalyzing trashy B-movies is more my line of work than Elvira’s (which is really to say that it’s no line of work at all).


Another problem is the subpar quality of the movie prints and transfers. With HD satellite and widescreen DVD there’s no longer any reason to rely on 4:3 VHS-quality transfers for old films, no matter their perceived worth. Watching these movies in foggy pan-and-scan is not only a bit of a chore, it doesn’t do them justice. This is especially true of Prehistoric Monster. Classic kaiju-eiga films relied heavily on anamorphism to overcome their budgetary and technological limitations and create a sense of theatrical grandeur and spectacle, but you wouldn’t know it from this disk.


These are minor quibbles, though, especially since Peterson and company are, in their own way, doing their part to help keep these old movies alive. This disk is worth a look not only for old time’s sake—the old time of these movies’ creation as well as that of Elvira’s career heyday. The production of the titles, extras, and host segments is also notable, not least for the contribution of notesmith Jack White, who is presumably the source of Midnight Macabre‘s catchy and driving theme song and also does a brief cameo or two. All in all this is a valuable if modest contribution to the B-movie canon, and I look forward to the next full release.

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