Two Heads and Shoulders: ‘Elvira’s Movie Macabre’

[14 October 2011]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

It was only a matter of time before a certain Mistress of the Dark made a comeback. As she sat on the sidelines, counting her cult and picking her projects (including a weird reality show looking to discover the next great horror hostess???), original post-modern TV fright queen Cassandra Peterson, aka the fetching fiend Elvira, did her own version of one Pee-Wee Herman. As big an icon in the ‘80s as the flailing manchild (they both came from the same improv background), she knew the time would come when her quirky, ironic shtick would find new favor. Thanks to the Internet and the undying love for bad movies, the groundwork was all but set. All she needed was a push - and the bifurcated (Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic) but still beloved affection for Mystery Science Theater 3000 argued for a return of Elvira’s Movie Macabre.

Currently syndicated and sharpening up Saturday nights, the new show may offer amplified production values and a slick new intro, but for the most part, it’s the same sensational spoof as 25-plus years before. Ms. Peterson, who still looks smokin’ hot at 60(!), dons the familiar Vampira meets Valley Girl get-up, complete with enhanced cleavage and stripper Goth gal wardrobe, and riffs on the lowest of the low budget Hollywood bungles. By now, thanks to a world wired web that’s overdosed on Z-grade schlock, the titles are ingrained in our consciousness. Luckily, our hilarious horror hostess still has something fresh and new to say. Even better, we’re now getting an even quicker turnaround to home theater via DVD. Encased in a couple of crap efforts - the baffling The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and the equally awful The Manster, we get discussions on the current economy as well as a possible immigration crisis. And you thought all Ms. Peterson was is partially exposed breasts and creepshow burlesque

The Brain the Wouldn’t Die is one of those much maligned cl-assics that deserves all the criticism it gets. The story centers around a brilliant scientist who just can’t leave his work back at the lab. So he takes it home with him. His research centers around…aw, who cares. All we know is that he’s some kind of mad genius, his assistant is a whiny old man, and there’s something sinister locked away in a basement closet. When our hero’s fiancé dies in a terrible car crash, he salvages her head and takes it back to his underground lair. There, he keeps it alive via tubes and plot contrivances, eventually discovering that the severed noggin can speak. As his vivisected sweetie harangues him, our head-pecked doc drives around, looking for a suitable body for a planned reattachment. Unfortunately, the head has other ideas.

As a perfect b-movie follow-up, we get The Manster, a similarly themed exercise in experimental science gone potty. When a reporter arrives at his isolated mountain retreat, a famed Japanese geneticist is none too happy to see him. You see, the manic medico has been experimenting with some of the locals, and his “results” are repugnant at best. Naturally, the humble host drugs the journalist and injects him with some funky serum. Before you know it, our scribe is living the high life in Tokyo, avoiding deadlines and cheating on his earnest American girlfriend. When a growth on his shoulder turns into a second head, however, all bets are off. Soon, the writer turns into a terrifying killer, looking for vengeance and seeking out the one who made him this way for one finally pass at payback.

Taken in tandem, both The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and The Manster and pure black and white wastes of time. They are neither scary nor suspenseful and offer effects so “special” they belong in their own isolated classroom at school. This is shortbus cinema, the kind of unimaginative tripe that used to fill up screening space at the neighborhood passion pit. Couples could care less about the level of authenticity or narrative reality. All they needed was a few hours of alone time to make the night’s date all the more…memorable. Of the two, Manster is more intriguing. It comes with a patented Japanese/American/WWII subplot, as well as a mixed race cast. While the final act is silly, getting there offers a couple of clever twists. As for Brain, it’s just a confusing mess. Before we know it, our lady in the casserole is calling out everyone and telepathically linking with the “thing” in the cage. The last minute arrival of the monster is a hoot, but for the most part, this is a trying, talky slog.

Luckily, we have Elvira to make the motion picture pain a bit more manageable. With her comic persona and come hither allure, she’s the perfect companion to a compendium of crap. As we struggle with some of the scenes, she will jump in and add a joke (unlike MST3K, she doesn’t do a continuous commentary or constant riffing). At each commercial break - mandatory for her survival in syndication - we get mini-skits and moments of levity. During Brain, the focus in on a game show appearance as a way to make some money. Eventually, Elvira gets the bright idea of using her own smart severed head to win. As for Manster, our heroine discovers that her visa is about to run out and, unless she can find a way around it, she will be deported. Naturally, she has a pair of back-up “assets” that help her avoid legal calamity.

For the most part, Ms. Peterson is a bubbly and sincere personality. Her characterization of Elvira is half hopped up horny, half wink and a nod suspicious . We never once get the feeling that she’s relying solely on her body to get by, but do recognize the fact that she’s got a viable flesh fallback position when needed. As for the show itself, it’s a jovial b-movie cavalcade, a means of making people laugh while highlighting some of the worst movies of all time. Of course, costs and rights issues limit what Peterson and her producers can procure, but in the end, the choices are always perfect for the talent’s tongue in cheek takes. It was only a matter of time before the general public missed the hostess with the most-est. For her part, Elvira and her creator haven’t aged a bit - and for anyone who loves bosoms and bad movies, that’s a goofball godsend.

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