Thursday, October 20, 2011

Elvira - Mistress of the Dark!

The Horror Hostess with the Mostest!

(Part 1 of 2)

    The first time I ever saw Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was in the pages of Fangoria magazine. I'm going to guess the year as 1982, and from the article it seemed she had been on the air in California for several months or a year. Of course, I was struck by her incredible beauty, but in reading the article I also found myself very enamored of her humor and intelligence. The article touched on her alter ego Cassandra Peterson as well, so I also got to know how the character came about.

Early-vira - one of the initial airings of the original
show - look at the differences in the hair and makeup!

I didn't see anything else of her for a while after that article, then one night some months later I saw in my local TV Guide that Elvira's Movie Macabre was going to be airing on channel 25 out of Evansville Indiana one Saturday night at 11:30pm. This was both good news and bad, as it was awesome that her series had been syndicated, but sad too because my house out in the boonies could not pick up channel 25. Luckily, my pal Brad lived in town and had cable (something else that didn't reach as far as my house) and in those days before the FCC started limiting who could watch what the local cable company included channel 25 in their lineup. So Saturday night at 11:30, with his parents safely in bed, Brad and I hunkered down to watch our first Movie Macabre and see Elvira moving and talking. The movie that night was a early 70's British flick called Crucible of Horror, about an evil father (Michael Gough - later Alfred in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman movies) finally killed by his long suffering family, but turning up after to torment them. 

It was really very bad, and as each movie segment droned on we completely lost interest in the movie (I have no idea how it ended), only perking up for the terrific segments leading to and from commercials with Elvira. Well, my friends and I were movie masochists anyway, watching bad movies even without any help from the Mistress of the Dark, so we were hooked. After that for several months every Saturday night around 11:30pm I would head over to Brad's house, usually with either a giant Slim Jim or a huge convenience store sub sandwich and a bottle of YooHoo and we would watch whatever Movie Macabre had on tap for us. And oh, the brutally bad movies we sat through! House of the Dead, New Year's Evil, The Devil's Wedding Night, Inn of the Damned. Wow! But it didn't matter as long as Elvira was there to soften the blow with her jokes and humor.

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Here's what we saw at about 11:30:30 on Channel 25.

While that was occurring Elvira's influence was starting to spread. I saw a profile of Cassandra Peterson and Elvira on the NBC series Real People that was a lot of fun; Movie Macabre was airing in syndication all over the country; and around Halloween it started to be common to see Elvira popping up on all kinds of TV shows (The Fall Guy for example).

She would still turn up in the pages of Fangoria magazine occasionally, and I joined her fan club, getting the membership card, a lapel pin, a couple of newsletters, etc. The newsletter was pretty funny - but I think they only produced two or three - I don't remember receiving any more than that - but it's also possible there were four and then the subscription ran out. I'll bet Ms. Peterson doesn't remember this any better than I do!

I also found a couple of posters, one the classic shot of her in the flames, it's an early shot (you can tell if it's early because the hair is not as tall) and another classic called Moonbathing with Elvira in a one piece black swimsuit on the sand under the full moon. Terrific iconic shots. 

Not long after this I was in college and as is usual for a college town there was a GREAT comic book shop nearby. One day I was looking through some special bundled comics the owner had put together, selling the complete run of a limited series or a particular storyline from a comic, and there among them I was amazed to see a several issue run of DC's House of Mystery featuring Elvira as the host! At this point in my life I had been away from comics for a few years as they had gotten too expensive for the allowance I got as a very young man. Now, even though the cover prices had continued to go up, money was a little more plentiful, so I was getting back in to reading them again. I was familiar with DC's House of Mystery from my first round of comics reading. As a kid, it seemed like a pretty cool horror comic. As I got older and more sophisticated, and thanks to my pal Brad and his knowledge of EC comics from the 50's like Tales from the Crypt, I had come to realize that the Marvel and DC horror comics of the mid to late 70's and early 80's were pretty lackluster. The Comics Code Authority pretty much made sure nothing truly horrifying was going to occur or be shown, and I was not in the habit of reading them in college. But here was an entire run of 12 comics with Elvira in them. And at a great deal! I picked them up and ran home to start reading. Basically you had the same "EC-Lite" horror stories, but it was fun to have the Mistress of the Dark introducing them instead of the original host Cain. (Cain hosted House of Mystery, Abel hosted House of Secrets. Cain and Abel. Get it? Yeah, me neither, really.)


    Around this time I was reading that Elvira had signed on to host some home video releases under the "ThrillerVideo" label. Apparently the first few releases were not well received because they were of movies that were not otherwise available on home video and in addition to an opening and closing segment, the Mistress of the Dark was popping in and doing shtick in the middle of the movies, which was really torking people off. Thrillervision pulled back for a while, then started a second wave of releases, (including the first few movies again) and I remember the wording on the packaging making it very clear the movies were uninterrupted once they started! I didn't see many of these first few ThrillerVideo tapes as my local video stores in Illinois did not carry them. As the home video industry continued to expand into the late 80's however, more stores opened and had a wider variety of product, and the Thrillervision line expanded to include Elvira hosting episodes of British TV's Hammer House of Horror as well as obscure horror movies, so I got to see several of these. I was not as fond of these as I was Movie Macabre, because after her opening, it was goodbye to Elvira until the end of the show or movie, and I wanted to see more of her! (Especially so when the movie or show was particularly bad). Still, some Elvira was better than none!

This is exactly my standee, minus the yellow logo blurb.

Elvira as a character continued to explode into new avenues throughout the 80's and one of the merchandising deals was with Coors beer. For a few years around Halloween Coors's would feature Elvira in their TV commercials and the displays in the grocery stores for Coors would have a life sized cardboard cutout of the Mistress of the Dark. I honestly cannot remember where I got it from, but I managed to get ahold of one of these cutouts (I seem to remember some money exchanging hands, I think I paid a grocery boy $10 for her or something.) It was Elvira alone, holding a tray with a couple of cans and bottles of Coors on it, and nothing else! Some of these cutouts had word balloons for sale prices or whatever stuck on the figure, but I got one that was clear. (I think it had come from a larger display where the word balloons and Coors logos were on the other pieces of the display.) I kept that standup for several years, only finally giving it up when I was moving (either to Florida in 1988, or to North Carolina in 1992) and there was no room for her in my car.

    Speaking of Florida and my move there in 1988, it was a strange two months spent watching 125 movies, both on video and at the theaters in Winter Haven. One of the feature films I saw there was none other than Elvira-Mistress of the Dark. I loved the movie, bought it on video in VHS and eventually DVD.

    The story has Elvira finding out her aunt has passed away in puritanical Falwell Massachusetts. Elvira comes to town to collect her inheritance, which turns out to be her aunt's house. Settling in to figure out what to do with the house, Elvira turns the town on its ear with her sexy ways. She also comes in to conflict with her uncle Vincent, an arcane old codger looking to get his hands on Auntie's recipe (spell) book. The movie doesn't aim particularly high, keeping most of the humor aimed squarely at its star's two most noticeable attributes.

    I am speaking of her sense of humor and quasi supernatural trappings. What did you think I meant? In any case, Uncle Vincent is played in the movie by the great character actor W. Morgan Sheppard.

W. Morgan Sheppard as Vincent Talbot.

 A few years after Elvira was made, I worked with Mr. Sheppard on the CBS series American Gothic. He was a hoot, and had some good stories to tell about working with the Mistress of the Dark.

We're doing a bad sitcom freeze frame ending here.

Here's one of the Midnight Madness tapes. Note the "Uncut Uninterrupted" blurb.

    Right after college I worked in a little video store in Crown Point, Indiana called Box Office video. I learned that Rhino Home Video had licensed Elvira to host a new series of VHS tapes for movies they were putting out, and I talked my manager into letting me purchase the entire 14 tape set in one swoop at COST. Sweet! (Cost was still something like $13 and change per movie - in those days when retail cost on VHS movies was getting down to the $19.99 arena. Do the math. Yup. I'm a fan.) So, anyhoo, I got the entire run of Elvira's Midnight Madness and thoroughly enjoyed watching them. Most were for 50's movies I hadn't seen like She Demons and Frankenstein's Daughter, so it was money well spent.

Because it has always been the lady's talent that has appealed to me in addition to her beauty, I also sought out what I could of Cassandra Peterson's appearances in movies and television out of the Elvira getup. I did manage to see Echo Park which was a decent little movie with a nice role for Ms. Peterson, however I was very disappointed in the Allan Quartermain sequel which featured her only in a brief role as the Queen of the bad guys. Of course the two Allan Quartermain movies of the 80's are perfect exercises in 80's movie cheese, and well worth watching with a box of crackers and bottle of wine, but viewing the second movie strictly as a Cassandra Peterson showcase leaves the movie choking on the ground.

Allan Quartermain and the Lost Opportunity

    I remember a picture in Fangoria magazine of a very cute Cassandra in a movie with the late great Robert Webber, I think it was one of those weird Robert Blake movies from the early 80's. (Coast to Coast?) I never got a chance to take a look at that one back then, so I have no idea how big a role she played or if the movie is worth a look at all. Might be worth trying to track down now, though I would imagine it would have to be a VHS search as this is not a movie you'd find on DVD.

    As the world moved into the 1990's Elvira took on somewhat more iconic status, eventually becoming the Queen of Halloween. The whole month of October became her busy time as she made personal appearances at parades and shows and festivals, and popped up on talk shows and other television programs. For years she also had a Halloween show at Knotts Berry Farm in California, something I always wished I'd had the opportunity to attend.

    And we'll break off here to go to commercial. And as Movie Macabre taught us - whenever we go to commercial, we always get what? That's right! Elvira!

To Be Continued!

And til then, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. Man, those were some lousy movies all right. And I don't regret a moment.

    Let's not forget the unlicensed homage film "Waiting For Elvira".

  2. RBR! Waiting for Elvira - now there's a never-realized classic! I told Gina Reed I might try to post the surviving footage on YouTube someday - she threatened my life! Can you imagine?