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Film

The Boob Tube: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Movie Macabre

If you dismiss the wit, remove all the occasionally lame lampoons and off-target takes, what you end up with is a gal and her glands giving hormonally hopped up teenagers a permanent underwear wedgie.

It can't just be the breasts. There has to be more to it than that. As a staple of syndicated television for most of the '80s, Movie Macabre, featuring improvisational actress Cassandra Peterson as Elvira, self-proclaimed "Mistress of the Dark" introduced thousands of fledgling fright fans to the joys of the hack horror movie. Yet after two additional decades of cult consideration, Peterson's pert chest ornaments seem to be the show's sole lasting legacy.

After a scattered career that saw her fronting a rock band, working in film (she had a bit part in Fellini's Roma) and living the life of a legitimate Vegas showgirl, Peterson joined the famed Groundlings troupe in Los Angeles, home to such soon to be famous faces as Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens, Phil Hartman and Edie McClurg. After a successful audition for a 'horror host' job at local LA station KHJ-TV, Peterson put on a goofy Goth gal outfit, smeared on some extreme theatrical make-up, and bared the bounty of her bosom, all in an obvious attempt at public recognition and popularity.

It obviously worked. Once an established hit, Elvira's combination of sex appeal and sarcasm went nationwide, and soon hundreds of affiliates around the country were grabbing great ratings as a result of Petersons patented comedic curves. Famed for delivering some of the worst movies ever made, years before home video would give the everyday movie buff a chance to see such shameful epics for themselves, Movie Macabre also provided an otherwise unavailable format for such seminal shockers as Tombs of the Blind Dead, Peeping Tom, Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Blue Sunshine. In fact, Elvira and her air-headed antics (she was a combination of vamp and Valley girl) probably provided more young males with those adolescent rites of passage – sex and scares – than any other entertainment entity of the era.

While often cited as the inspiration for such future classics as Mystery Science Theater 3000, the truth is that Movie Macabre was really a throwback to the previous television tradition of The Late, Late Show. Back when the medium was still immature, stations needed a way to perk up their everpresent catalog of b-movie reruns. Many of the films, used to supplement the main theatrical feature or play alongside a known name at the local passion pit, needed help gaining recognition from a home bound audience, and all manner of gimmicks were employed. Hosts phoned unknowing viewers, asking tame trivia questions in a Dialing for Dollars format. Still others offered a kind of public forum in between commercials, giving local charities and causes a chance to pitch their problem and/or product to a captive consumer crowd.

But executives soon learned that kids made up a large percentage of the potential ratings pool – especially on weekends when the inherent desire to stay up late usually resulted in a couple of hours spent in front of the television. Hoping to capture the juvenile imagination, targeted content was considered; in this case, reruns of old horror films. But in order to make the presentation more palatable, talent and tricks were employed. The most famous was the horror host: the fictional fiend or freak who acted like a kooky co-conspirator with their happily sleep deprived demographic. Throughout the '50s and '60s, names like Zachary, Svengoolie, and perhaps most famously, Vampira, kept station managers happy as they salvaged some saleable ad time from the typically desolate doldrums of weekend programming.

In many ways, Elvira is Vampira's kitschy camp cousin. Unlike the '50s icon who took her role as scare siren very, very seriously, Peterson's creation was all brazen befuddlement. Elvira was supposed to be sexy, her obvious assets exposed to the world and demeanor more teasing than terrorizing. She was a lure for the fright faithful, a completely acknowledged carnal come-on meant to get you to put down the remote and pay attention. Though she also offered up comedic skits and outright ridicule of the films featured, Elvira was meant as a memorable, male-oriented trademark, a way of reminding viewers that once a week, horror movies – and a humpable honey – were just a single channel click away.

As a result, some horror film aficionados clamored that there was more to the Mistress of the Dark than low-cut gowns and a hypersexualized Morticia Addams vibe. They argued for the viability of the movies she was mocking, pointing to the collection of terror classics that passed through Elvira's haunted halls. In their considered, occasionally obsessive opinion, a show like Movie Macabre did more good for the cause of genre cinema than any damage resulting from the host's entendre-laced ribbing. Certainly there were those who leveled the charge – later to pester the people behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 – that shows like Movie Macabre actually belittled the efforts of those who made the movies being mocked, but for the most part, Elvira was seen as a way of making even the most poisoned motion picture palatable to the public.

Funny thing is, you'll find very little evidence of this ideal when trudging through the six selected episodes of Movie Macabre recently released on DVD by those oddball product preservationists, Shout! Factory. Installments of Elvira's original shows have long been a kind of hokum Holy Grail for individuals obsessed with Peterson's presence – and pulchritude. As the Internet provided an outlet for fandom and communal fixation, those lucky enough to have taped the temptress's original broadcasts were forming a collector's cottage industry. Now we finally have a sextet of shows that offer examples of what made Elvira both instantly memorable, and ultimately unimportant to the overall acceptance of the horror film.

Early examples of Movie Macabre provide the blueprint for the rest of the series. After a series of stock footage shots usually revolving around thunder and/or lightening, we enter a fog filled corridor. At one end, a door slowly opens, and backed by an almost blinding beacon of light, Elvira stands, posed to perfection like some manner of undead supermodel. After a greeting, or maybe just a suggestive walk, we enter our hostess's inner sanctum. There, a red Victorian couch sits, accented by dozens of flame-licked candles. Seated and showing off her gorgeous gams, Elvira coos and cuts up for the camera, enticing us with her sexual suggestions while simultaneously playing the role of risqué moron perfectly. After a few more quips, the title of the film is announced, and just like that, our main attraction begins. Then, all throughout the running time (at about 10 minute intervals) Elvira interrupts the film, commenting on the content, and generally joking about her sorry lot in life as a hackwork horror host.

On occasion, our genial gal would be joined by her elderly relative, a wannabe stand-up comedian named Auntie Virus. Played by Eve Smith, this randy octogenarian was usually good for a series of sensationally bad jokes. Also part of the program was a obscene phone caller known as The Breather. Played by fellow Groundlings alum John Paragon (who would become famous as Pee Wee's genie pal Jambi) Elvira seemed to both despise and delight in this sicko's silly antics. Yet even with these infrequent guest stars spots and ancillary players, Movie Macabre was never really a skit show. Instead, it was totally in sync with the nostalgic way in which films were packaged back in the days before cable.

Looking at a film like The Werewolf of Washington (1973) from the first season, 1981, it's hard to see how Movie Macabre survived. This turgid little tale of a Presidential political aide bit by a cursed creature during a stint in Romania has all the trappings of a solid cinematic cesspool: bad casting (Dean Stockwell is our lead lycanthrope), outrageous plot elements (apparently, the government has a secret monster making lab under the White House -- complete with a midget mad doctor) and sloppy, uninspired special effects. Yet leave it to Werewolf of Washington to find even more talent-free ways to work its wounded animal wonders. In the film, Stockwell left for Eastern Europe in order to avoid an affair with the Commander in Chief's substantially smitten daughter, so naturally said child has to stick around and play victim until the final reel, confronting her paranormal paramour and trying to patch things up just as our hero is shapeshifting before a full moon.

As creature features go, Werewolf of Washington feels like All the President's Men on peyote buttons. From the befuddled, absent-minded Oval Office occupant (played with seemingly inebriated aplomb by actor Biff McGuire) to the helicopter flight where the Chinese Ambassador to America goes apeshit after seeing Stockwell change into our wacky wolfman, this movie is a major mess. Thankfully, Elvira is around to take the sting out of this inexcusable entertainment. She provides the mirror that perfectly captures a home audiences' reaction to this ripe slice of entertainment Edam. All throughout the course of this crud, she runs entertainment interference. While we should be tuning out, disgusted by the lack of talent on display, Peterson provides enough enjoyable jocularity to keep us tuned in. It's the same thing that happens with two other first season stumbles: Legacy of Blood (1971) and Count Dracula's Great Love (19872).

Like an episode of Dynasty gone gangrenous, Legacy of Blood uses a freakish family, the reading of their dead Daddy's will, and a bountiful collection of closeted skeletons to turn something supposedly shocking into 90 minutes of mindnumbing dullness. Of course, the last man (or woman) standing gets all of the inheritance, so bodies start piling up like beer cans outside a college frat house. As part of the interpersonal dynamic, we get a sister incestually obsessed with her practically porcine brother, a psychiatrist in-law whose constantly on the make for the clan's over the hill matron, a cowardly couple whose ratty little dog takes a lethal swan dive into the cement pond, and a tank of piranhas just waiting for a human body part to munch on. Instead of terror, Legacy of Blood is all talk. Characters here just gab and gab away, hoping that their lengthy conversations overloaded with suggestions and scandal will make our skin crawl. Sadly, they just make our eyes droop.

Equally ineffective is Dracula's lame love story. Featuring Spanish shock legend Jacinto Molina (known to most Westerners by his nom de plume Paul Naschy) and a bevy of Euro-babes in various stages of undress, this Agatha Christie cop out is like a neckbiter's version of And Then There Were None. We start out watching some workmen get the undead version of the hickey. Then a group of travelers ends up in a supposed abandoned sanitarium, only to find Naschy as a dashing doctor who never seems to be around during the day (hmmm…). Soon, people are being bitten in the night, turning instantly into vampires within mere moments of being wounded. Eventually, all that's left is the naïve virgin who, if legend is to be believed, will fall in love with Dracula for who he is as a person, not as a supernatural slayer. When she does, our Vlad will be restored to human form, free to live out his days as a mortal man of passion.

Obviously, neither film is going to win any awards for subtlety or cinematic savvy. But thanks to Elvira's presence, and her unique insights into the knottier aspects of the narrative process, what should be unwatchable becomes a comforting juxtaposition to the fragrant filmic flop being offered. Though some of her material is silly and subpar (a cooking feature about putting clothes on food items is just plain stupid) Peterson makes it work with just the slightest suggestion of naughtiness and a shake of her trademark "talents". In fact, as the first season episodes play out, we see her chest getting more and more screen time. By the time we reach the season four foulness of Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks (1974), hooters and horror are sharing equal billing as part of Movie Macabre's mannerism. Not even a movie featuring Rossano Brazzi as the legendary corpse grinder, some hairy homunculus named "Boris Lugosi" as a hygienically challenged caveman, and a small fry sex maniac who likes to watch girls get frisky in the local sulfur pond can dissuade us from the perfectly shaped skin samples on display.

In between, these DVDs give us the chance to see the world end – oddly – when a "Red Chinese" Doomsday Machine (1972) makes mincemeat out of the planet. And wouldn't you know it, a ragtag group of space survivors has just blasted off, led by the unlikely duo of Bobby Van and Ruta Lee. They are headed to Venus to begin the repopulation process. Endless seconds of sloppy speculative fiction ensue including an ending which appears to purposely contradict everything that came before – including the concept of hope for humanity. In The Devil's Wedding Night (1973), however, all optimism is dashed the moment lead actor Mark Damon shows up in a dual role. Playing a supernatural scholar and his reckless, gambling indebted twin brother, the boys head out to Transylvania to see if the legends about a certain blood drinking Count are true. Somehow, they think they can make some money on the vaunted vampire. Instead, they run into the bat man's former bride, who now lures ladies to her curious castle. There, she kills them, and bathes in their blood. Supposedly, it keeps her skin soft and supple. Apparently, 18th Century aristocracy never heard of Oil of Olay.

If these plots sound particularly cheesy, that's apparently the point. In the days before the VCR made everyone a certifiable cinematic expert, shows like Movie Macabre – along with books like the Medveds' Golden Turkey Awards – set the standards for perceived motion picture schlock product. Eternally dismissed entries like Plan 9 from Outer Space and anything featuring Arch Hall, Jr. became the benchmarks for what was viable, and what was vilified, in the realm of genre archiving. While no one is suggesting that there are scholars who believe in Werewolf of Washington's feasibility as a lost fright film classic, there are many installments of Movie Macabre that feature movies now considered horror essentials. That is perhaps the reason behind Shout! Factory's limited release pattern. With full blown collector's editions from companies like Criterion endorsing their importance, the reality of Elvira's impact is made all the more crystal clear.

If you dismiss the wit, remove all the occasionally lame lampoons and off-target takes, what you end up with is a gal and her glands giving hormonally hopped up teenagers a permanent underwear wedgie. Something like Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks or The Doomsday Machine can't even begin to offer anything similar to solid cinematic entertainment. Any diversion is welcome, and when it looks as sounds as sensationally sexy as Peterson, who is going to complain? Decades later, when home video turned everyone into experts, a concept like Elvira just couldn't work. For every film featured and made fun of, someone would always be nearby, ready to champion its "challenging" concepts of coherence and continuity. If the truth is told, the ability to experience shocking and shameful examples of stunted cinema in our own homes has practically erased the word "worthless" from our video vocabulary. Even the biggest celluloid atrocity will find a sponsor in our new self-imposed sense of punditry.

So all we are left with is the iconography: the body image…the breasts. For all she did to bring horror films back into the broadcast mainstream, Cassandra Peterson and her Bride of the Monster machinations only offer a single salable purpose in 2006. Call it a reminder of a simpler show business time when sex would soft sell a program's possibilities, or consider it a smart update of an outmoded form of motion picture presentation, but Elvira had no equal in the realm of retrograde revivalism within cinema's slapdash substrata. Even her close cousins at Mystery Science Theater 3000 were in it more for their own sense of satire than keeping the channels of terror free and open. In looking back, such a proposition, especially from a local TV station and an unknown star, seems rather bold. Today, it's just the breasts we care about. Sadly, like the movies she used to mock, our Mistress of the Dark has been reduced to a recognizable type. There was always much more to this character than cleavage. Alas, a sparse selection of six episodes just does not begin to disprove that.

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