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Two decades later, “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” is a timeless Halloween classic

If you’re on the cutting edge of holiday-themed songs, you might have noticed the recent release of the highly topical music video, “Don’t Cancel Halloween.” A parody of Madonna’s 1983 hit “Holiday,” the week-old song isn’t a report of ways in which Halloween might be considered “problematic” (fear not, readers), but rather a lament that the global pandemic is tarnishing America’s ability to celebrate the spookiest holiday in 2020. And just when it’s finally going to fall on a Saturday!

The video stars a statuesque, vampirically pale woman with a towering black beehive, who pulls on a variety of different costumes over her revealing black wrap dress as she bemoans the thought of Oct. 31 with “no costumes, candy, or celebration” or even “slutty girls dressed like cats.” She also disparagingly comments that “the scariest thing about Halloween is that big, orange, fat, scary face,” in a thinly veiled jab at Donald Trump, before hefting a jack-o-lantern and asking the camera with an innocent smile, “Who’d you think I was talking about?”

But who exactly is this singer, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Halloween?” Well, it’s 69-year-old actress Cassandra Peterson, once again reprising the defining role of her career: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The character got her start in 1981 on the Los Angeles television station KHJ-TV as the host of “Elvira’s Movie Macabre,” a weekly program of horror and science fiction B movies. The gothic valley girl became a crowd favorite for the sardonic and risqué comments with which she interrupted the films, and her willingness to lightly mock herself as well as the movies on display. In addition to her own show, Peterson has headed burlesque shows as Elvira and made guest appearances as her on various television dramas and talk shows including “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” The character has also starred in and been featured in multiple novels, comics, calendars and video games. However, one of the character’s most famous performances to this day is as the lead of the 1988 feature film, “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark,” the film which will be the main subject of this review.

When the film opens, Elvira’s TV station has just been taken over by a new manager, who promptly makes sexual advances towards her. When informed she must put up with his sleazy behavior or quit, she immediately resigns, reasoning that the loss of her job makes it the perfect time to start her long-dreamed-of burlesque show in Vegas. But in order to make it happen, Elvira has to provide the venue with a cool $50,000. Just as she’s wondering how to scare up the cash, the phone in her dressing room rings. It seems her estranged great-aunt Morgana has just passed away, and she’s expected to come down to New England for the reading of the will. Gee, what a lucky break!

When Elvira pulls into her aunt’s small, conservative town in a convertible lined with leopard print, she causes an immediate stir. The townspeople distrust her instantly, warning their children to keep away from this sexed-up, citified stranger. But Elvira is cheerfully oblivious to their distaste. However, she’s a little more peeved that her aunt only left her a rundown mansion, a poodle named Algonquin, and an old book of recipes, rather than some much-needed money. Making the best of her situation, she sets out to renovate and sell the mansion, gives the poodle a colorful makeover and renames him “Gonk,” and builds meaningful friendships with the local kids — and with Bob, the sweet, studly operator of the local movie theater.

Still, there’s one rather important antagonist who objects to Elvira’s presence: her great-uncle Vincent, who desperately wants that strange little recipe book his sister left behind — the one whose recipes keep producing peculiar, almost supernatural results. To get it, he’s willing to lie, cheat, steal and even arrange to have Elvira burned at the stake! Together with Gonk, Bob and her gaggle of high school protégés, will Elvira be able to stand up against her detractors and reach the future she dreams of? Only the film will tell.

“Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” is a genuinely excellent female-led comedy. Elvira is an unabashed archetype, the epitome of the busty goth girlfriend that Generation Z loves to yearn for. Yet the film never mocks her for her body, her ditziness, or the joy she finds in bats and fake blood. Instead, every one-liner celebrates her as a woman who is sure of herself and her value, and who encourages others to follow in her footsteps and embrace their best and boldest selves. And her odd-couple relationship with Bob is shown as a sweet and respectful one, rooted in mutual admiration for each other’s lovely personalities and lovelier physiques (the perfect pairing of bimbo and himbo, if you will). Though Bob is thoroughly unfamiliar with Elvira’s world, he isn’t made insecure by her experience and never frowns upon her Gothic tendencies. The film is actually co-written by Peterson; she was likely instrumental in creating such a gentle, gleeful storyline for her character. 

If it isn’t yet clear, do not enter this film looking for hardcore horror. There’s nary a jumpscare to be found, let alone an entrail-spraying massacre (though Elvira does at one point get to wield a gun the size of her torso). And the corny fog machine and magical green-spark-trail effects are two more things that place this film firmly in the realm of camp rather than creep. But if you’re looking for something more heartwarming than horrifying — if you shudder at hardcore fright fests yet still want to get in the Halloween spirit — if you like a woman with a vampiric aura, a valley girl accent, and a soft, massive heart — then “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” is absolutely worth the watch.