Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween Watch: Elvira - Mistress of the Dark (1988)

I'm a firm believer that the 1988 film Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is both underrated and was ahead of its time.  Fortunately, in the ensuing 20-something years, the movie found its audience on VHS, cable and DVD.

While certainly there were female-centric comedies in the 1980's (see: the career of Goldie Hawn), Elvira's persona was considered something more to gawk at during her first wave of popularity when seen through the filter of media like The Tonight Show than it was seen for its own merits or as something folks were bothering to pay attention to.  Sure, she had genuine fans out there, and the oddly specific nature of Elvira translated surprisingly well to beer ads, etc...

The movie is a mish-mash of familiar tropes.  The fish-out-of-water Elvira leaves LA to claim a much-needed inheritance from a dead Aunt in a small town that makes the town in Footloose look loosey-goosey (Edie McClurg is particularly good as the town biddy).  Mix that in with magic, an evil uncle seeking magical powers at any cost, high school kids who have never had the good fortune to be exposed to bad movies until Elvira's arrival and seemingly bad influence, and you've got a pretty fast paced movie with an entire town of straight men to Elvira's Bugs Bunny-ish approach to Mayberry.

I'm not sure the movie is exactly... good.  I personally find Elvira's schtick hilarious, so I'm pre-disposed to dig the film.  And I think there's actually a nice little underdog, rabble-rousing message that was pretty popular in 1980's comedies that shines through.  But, even with that, there's also a stance taken by the film that might have been a bit different in tone during the era- That Elvira has embraced her oft-commented upon physicality and isn't ashamed of it - and she has complete ownership of how she thinks of herself.  She isn't some floozy, even if she jokes she is.  She's selective and actively picks her own object of affection for the film and the jokes on anyone else who misunderstands that her appearance is some sort of invitation.

Neither Elvira nor Cassandra Peterson - the woman behind the wig - are stupid.  Peterson has managed her career and herself pretty darn well for someone who was hosting B movies in the wee hours, and while the 1980's wasn't exactly poised to believe an attractive woman could also have a brain, be funny and manage her own career - Peterson herself helped write, create and promote the movie.  And she's still living off it today.

I'm not really sure I can name all that many movies that handle this in quite the same way, and, if the internet is any indication, a lot of women have taken the message to heart.  Straight male fans might appreciate Elvira for her comedy and appearance, but she offers a different kind of inspiration for the rest of her considerable audience.  That's all right.

Hats off to Cassandra Peterson and Elvira.

And you guys just thought I liked the dress.

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