[5 July 2011]
Cassandra Peterson, better known as “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”, is the ghostly, and busty, remains of an earlier era. Beginning in the ‘50s and picking up speed in the ‘60s, local TV stations across America showed late night horror and sci-fi, presented by colorful hosts that became local heroes. Zacherly the Cool Ghoul led the late night pack in creativity by inserting himself into the narrative, joking at the film of the nights’ cheesiest moments and staging skits filled with macabre humor. He would be followed by Cleveland’s Ghoulardi, Chicago’s Svengoolie, and Chilly Billy in Pittsburgh.
The original was the dark, gothic goddess Vampira of LA’s KABC. Appearing in 1954, Vampira was Maila Nurmi, the child of Finnish immigrants. She had previously worked as a dancer, a stripper and a hatcheck girl. Nurmi modeled her character out of the cartoons of Charles Addams, Disney’s evil queen from Snow White and from a popular bondage magazine known as Bizarre. She became a national figure through a photo spread in Life magazine, may have had an affair with Orson Welles, and then was unceremoniously taken off the air only to show up later in the Ed Wood oeuvre.
Cassandra Peterson revived the character in the ‘80s (though not without a legal battle with Nurmi). Peterson borrowed heavily from Vampira’s imagery but subtly transformed her into Elvira, a much less aggressive, subversive and really just far less weird character. Around now for almost 30 years her show, Movie Macabre, went into national syndication again in 2010.
A single disc DVD now available features two somewhat recent episodes of Movie Macabre. Viewers sympathetic to this sort of thing will find its easy to be charmed by Elvira’s post-modern celebration and satire of her own sexuality and by her spastic, valley-girl goth style. Still, the release of this volume of Elvira’s Movie Macabre is only for the completist. They themselves would be best served to wait to see if an Elvira mega-set appears at some future date.
If you can’t wait for that, be aware that the current incarnation of Elvira’s show uses only public domain films. That means that the two that appear on this single disc are in atrocious states of decay. The DVD shows the films exactly as TV viewers would see them, not scrubbed a bit in either audio or video. The prints are awful with plenty of scratches, blips and breaks. The sound is just as bad with plenty of pops and hisses. To make it even worse, the films are cut for TV with nudity amateurishly blurred out and language badly dubbed over.
Elvira’s whole act is based around the inherent awfulness of the films she shows, so don’t let that surprise you. Satanic Rites of Dracula, for example, is almost impossible to even understand. Sadly, this was the last outing as Dracula in a Hammer production for Christopher Lee who had helped create the classic horror franchise (he did play Dracula for laughs a few years later in a forgotten French film).
Satanic Rites opens in an international satanic coven from which a police informant escapes, is chased by a guy on a motorcycle and then saved by a guy in a black sedan. We aren’t sure why this is even happening and it only becomes more confusing from there. Some of this is due to how badly done the film is but at least a little is owed to how the film was cut for TV. Scenes end abruptly, sometimes with a character in mid-sentence. Commercial breaks slice and dice a movie that already can’t hold together.
We learn of some kind of diabolical conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of government. There’s another confusing motorcycle chase. A guy inexplicably shaves while listening to a recording of a sacrificial ceremony. Poor Peter Cushing shows up and you want to tell him that he’ll get to be in Star Wars soon. Lee finally appears as Dracula and kills a secretary. We don’t know why. Dracula wants to spread bubonic plague. Again, we don’t know why. Peter Cushing gets shot in the head and recovers without medical attention. I’m not kidding.
When all is said and done, we barely see Dracula for 15 minutes of screen time. Cushing and Lee have one of their climatic battles in a burning building and, for a few minutes, the old black magic is back. Its over in a flurry of religious symbolism that the later Hammer films became famous for and then it’s blessedly over.
The second film,The Werewolf of Washington, is slightly more tolerable. Dean Stockwell (child star and lately of Battlestar Galactica fame) plays a Washington politician that finds himself a victim of lycanthropy.
Stockwell is actually pretty good amidst the generally preposterous proceedings. But he’s swimming against a floodtide of stupidity. The werewolf outfit looks more like a giant grey ferret. There is a scene in which the president asks Stockwell’s character to stop scratching his palms because “its just not manly”. Attempts at serious social commentary (the authorities blame the Black Panthers for the werewolf’s crimes) mostly fall flat amidst the bad writing. There is some funny confusion over “the Pentagon” and “the Pentagram” that Stockwell plays hilariously. But it’s mostly just inane.
Of course, again, these are supposed to be stupid and Elvira is there to spoof them. And, I have to admit, some of Elvira’s gags are genuinely funny. A bubble with her face in it pops into one of the absurd satanic ceremonies to note that the last time she saw so many evil, crusty old white men she was watching C-Span. Most of what she does, and does well, is throw schlock against the wall to see if it sticks. In an incredibly murky shot in Werewolf of Washington, so poorly lit we can literally see nothing; she pops up holding a flashlight.
The single disc contains one set of special features accessed through each of the two films. If you love B-horror, the “Sneak Peaks” are something of a treat and, really, I find Elvira only bearable in short clips and small doses. Vodoo Island gets a send-up satire set to the Gilligan’s Island theme. A sneak preview of Werewolf of Washington shows us Elvira channeling Sarah Palin and cracking wise about shooting werewolves from helicopters.
Somewhat amusing in the features is an Elvira promo that satires Christine O’Donell’s, failed candidate for one of Maryland’s Senate seat, “I am not a Witch” commercial. O’Donnell, you may or may not remember, had once gone on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect and told some nonsense about her alleged adolescent interest in Satanism that included going on a date that ended up at a satanic altar. This ridiculous tale that would have gotten her a lot of attention when she told it on the church circuit made her seem more than a little foolish as she put herself forward for the US Senate. Elvira properly lampoons her and its really the highlight of the DVD.
It’s almost the only highlight. Other than these short clips, the special features are patently absurd. They include a badly edited photo shoot with Elvira. Its actually unclear what this is a photo shoot for and it is literally nothing but a few minutes of canned heavy metal and headache inducing fast editing of photographer Chris Ameruse taking pictures.
Another feature called the “Behind the Scenes Footage” is literally just some footage of extras and camera crew getting the set ready for the opening credits. Fake psychobilly band Ghoultown also has their Elvira video featured. These guys are not the Cramps, indeed they are not even Rob Zombie, and the song features hilariously bad lines about how Elvira “is giving me the chills/your black dress is driving me wild.”
Unfortunately, Elvira’s Movie Macabre mostly reminds you of the disappearance of the classic horror hosts. The goofy humor sometimes works, but the classics always included something subversive with the stupidity. For someone who is a living sexual innuendo, Elvira has almost no real sensuality. She certainly has none of Vampira’s danger, none her dark light that cast a wicked sheen on the rosy optimism of an America not ready for her.