The Joy of Elvira
I often will describe things that I enjoy, that hits all the right buttons in my brain, and that leaves me feeling elevated and better about life as it “makes my heart happy.” If there is one seasonal favorite that I can truly describe as a movie that makes my heart happy, it’s 1988’s “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.” I’m very glad to be alive in a time when the character of Elvira exists.
The creation of performer and writer Cassandra Peterson, Elvira has been a Halloween staple for 40 years. Created as a horror host for movies on local Los Angeles TV, Elvira quickly evolved into a pop culture icon. From local TV her show, “Movie Macabre” was shortly syndicated nationally and soon the character began to appear everywhere.
First in a series of popular beer commercials—I can still recall seeing the cutouts at the grocery stores at Halloween—and eventually appearing in no less than three pinball machines, all of which are absolute blasts to play. Along the way, she appeared on various talk shows and even has a guest star shot in an episode of the classic motorcycle cop TV series “CHIPs.”
The 1980s was a particularly rich time for a series of unique comedic characters, some with origins on stage and some in commercials, to become stars at the box office. Paul Ruebens, who was a cast-mate in LA’s famed improv group The Groundlings with Peterson, soon was all over TV and movies with “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and Saturday morning classic “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
A series of local ads for a dairy in middle Tennessee eventually led to Jim Varney staring as Ernest P. Worrell in “Ernest Goes to Camp,” and later a short-lived Saturday morning show “Hey, Vern! It’s Ernest.” It was inevitable the same would happen with “the vamp of camp” Elvira. At first, the plan was to create a sitcom centered around the character, but that was put on the back burner as a movie was to be made first.
Produced by a then-new movie production side of NBC, “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” has our famed host leaving her TV job when she learns she has a great aunt who has died and left her part of the estate. Elvira soon finds herself in the sleepy town of Falwell, Massachusetts and while up-enduing the town with her presence, she also finds herself at odds with her creepy uncle Vincent, who seems to be obsessed with a secret book that belonged to her aunt.
The movie, sadly, bombed at the box office due to the distributor going bankrupt shortly after its release. Yet, it has found a devoted cult following on home video and is now rightly seen as the great gem it is. It’s a go-to comfort movie for me as it’s such a blast from start to finish, full of her trademark double entendres and some over-the-top characters the movie, much like the character of Elvira, is as much a part of Halloween as candy and “The Monster Mash.”
In a perfect world, this movie would have busted out at the box office and we’d have a whole series of movies with Elvira. But though the film was a flop, Elvira certainly wasn’t. She’s kept right on appearing in video games, TV ads, guest star roles, and a California staple for years with an annual live show each October at Knott’s Berry Farm. Peterson recently published a memoir and it’s a great read that I highly recommend.
“Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” makes my heart happy. It’s a movie that’s too fun to not get swept up in, and I’m awful thankful to be alive in a time in which the character exists. For those of us who have grown up with her presence, Halloween just wouldn’t be the same without her. See you next week.