First gracing theaters on September 30, 1988, “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” is a cult classic with wit, style, and a timeless message.
Fed up with her lecherous boss, horror movie hostess Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) quits her job. She plans to go to Las Vegas to start her own show but lacks the funds. Just as she’s wondering what to do next, she learns that she had a great-aunt Morgana Talbot who has left her an inheritance.
So, Elvira packs up her stuff and heads to Fallwell, Massachusetts, for the reading of the will.
Once Elvira saunters out of her T-Bird in her cleavage-baring skin-tight dress, wild makeup, and sky-high jet-black bouffant hair — looking like the goth queen of the night — the conservative residents of Fallwell are quite shocked by her appearance. She instantly makes an enemy out of Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg), president of Fallwell’s Morality Club.
She soon discovers her lucrative inheritance is a disappointment, as Morgana left her only a rundown house, her dog Algonquin, and an old recipe book.
While Elvira is bemoaning her luck, another relative, Morgana’s brother Vincent (William Morgan Sheppard), is desperate to get his hands on what she’s been gifted. While he could care less about the house or the poodle, he wants that recipe book — and not so he can make great-grandma Talbot’s famous meatloaf to win the local cook-off. As it turns out, Elvira comes from a powerful family of witches, and that recipe book is really a powerful spellbook.
Elvira takes possession of the decrepit mansion and gives Algonquin, who she renames “Gonk,” a fabulous punk makeover. She fixes the mansion up with help from local teens. Meanwhile, the adults are determined to preserve the old-fashioned values of their town. They decide that Elvira, with her gothic eccentricities and revealing clothing, is public enemy number one.
With enemies all around, she learns the truth about who she is and what Aunt Morgana really left her. She decides to own her power and fight for her rightful inheritance. But it won’t be easy as she’s branded a witch and left to fight for her life in a town still terrified by witchcraft.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a clever satire on the conflict between the conventional and unconventional.
The wickedly funny film also pokes fun at how things aren’t always what they seem and that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Full of bawdy humor, bad puns, and double entendres, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The character Elvira is a mixed bag. While she has been the reigning mistress of the dark since 1981, she’s also bubbly and light-hearted. Elvira seamlessly fuses punk attitude with bubbly dippy ‘80s valley girl.
This wonderful cocktail, shaken and mixed up by Cassandra Peterson, is what makes her appealing to fans.
Elvira’s personality is based on an airheaded valley girl Peterson played as a member of a Los Angeles theater group, The Groundlings. In a 2018 interview with the Huffington Post, she said that she was a struggling actress who worked as a waitress part-time. She heard that a local TV station was looking for a horror movie hostess. She was interested since she always loved horror movies. The director came to see her perform and asked her if she could make her bubbleheaded valley girl character spooky.
Peterson first put together a look she described as a ghost girl with a long sheer and tattered dress that resembled Sharon Tate in the Fearless Vampire Killers. However, the producers didn’t like it and said she needed to be dressed in black.
Peterson and her friend Robert Redding put their heads together, combining an interesting mix of influences. They started with a very revealing tight black dress. Elvira’s makeup was inspired by a book on Kabuki theater makeup. Her beehive hair was inspired by Redding’s favorite all-female singing group from the 1960s, The Ronnettes. They added studded leather bracelets, and Elvira was born.
Elvira was introduced to audiences in 1981 hosting horror movies on Movie Macabre.
Elvira was already iconic when she finally graced the big screen in 1988 with Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, which she co-wrote with fellow Groundlings alumni, John Paragon.
The scene where Elvira first rolls into town in her customized, vintage black T-Bird sets up the characters and story perfectly. As she drives into Fallwell, smoke billows out from under the car’s hood. She gets out, and Chastity Pariah, a matronly figure with her hair still in rollers, takes in Elvira’s appearance. She huffs, “Well, I never!” Elvira responds, “You never will with those soup cans on your head.”
Chastity says, “I don’t know who you think you are, young lady, but you most certainly don’t fit in this town. Why, you don’t even fit in that dress!” Without missing a beat, Elvira walks right up to her, gets right into her face, points a pointed, jet-black fingernail at her, and says, “If I want your opinion, sister, I’ll beat it out of you!”
As Elvira checks into the Cozy Cot Motel, she’s greeted by the owners, who are an elderly couple. When the woman’s attempt to discriminate against Elvira fails, she reluctantly gives her a room. She insists that Elvira pay cash up front, telling her that she knows what “pinko heavy metal weirdos” do to hotel rooms. She read all about it in the Star.
The prudish atmosphere of Fallwell is as cartoonishly prudish as Elvira’s exaggerated gothic eccentricity.
Elvira is just as campy as the movies she spoofs — a cartoon character in the flesh.
She says and does things that perhaps, deep down, we all want to do and say. She tells it like it is and makes no apologies. And she does what she wants without hesitation. In a way, she has much in common with another cult icon, Dr. Frankenfurter from another beloved horror property that recently celebrated an anniversary, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark plays with the theme of things aren’t always what they seem. People aren’t always what they seem.
It’s human nature to want easy, quick-fix solutions to perceived problems. So we often ignore what is right in front of us. And we are quick to point our fingers and place blame, looking for a scapegoat among anyone deemed different or “other” in some way.
We often have a fear of change and the unknown. And we struggle to pen our minds and question ideas, philosophies, and paradigms we were raised on as children.
While the citizens of Fallwell (likely a reference to the infamous, deeply conservative moral crusader Jerry Falwell) target Elvira because of her eccentric appearance, they ignore the real enemy hiding in plain sight — Vincent Talbot. Vincent looks like a harmless elderly man. He seamlessly blends in with the citizens of Fallwell without an outward indication of eccentricity or difference. He even succeeds in inciting them against her.
However, the truly sinister character with a thorough knowledge of how to use Morgana’s book for nefarious ends is Vincent. People trust him because of his age and his appearance while demonizing Elvira for hers.
But, though Eliva may look like a dark princess, she really has a heart of gold. If you accept her, she willingly accepts you. And she doesn’t judge or discriminate.
Of course, Elvira’s first outing on the big screen has many references to classic horror.
The scene that sticks out most is when Elvira uses Morgana’s book to make dinner for her and her love interest, Bob (the character is actually listed as Bob Redding, named after Peterson’s co-collaborator in Elvira’s creation). Instead of a mediocre casserole, a monster that they manifest looks like something from a 1950’s sci-fi movie pops out of the pot.
There’s also Vincent, no doubt named after classic horror icon Vincent Price. Peterson has said that Price has always been her favorite actor since seeing him in House on Haunted Hill when she was little. The sequences where Vincent reveals the true inner dark magician that he is are reminiscent of Price’s films and also of classic Hammer horror films.
There’s also Morgana Talbot’s gothic mansion, the powerful book, Elvira’s magic ring, nighttime thunderstorms, and a chase through the cemetery. Uncle Vincent’s appearance morphs somewhat also during the magical showdown between him and niece Elvira, making him look reminiscent of classic Universal monsters.
Elvira is undoubtedly an iconic figure deserving of her own place in the halls of horror history. She has been the reigning Queen of Halloween for over 40 years. Her name is synonymous with campy cult films, and her first outing on the big screen was a satirical cult film.