Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of scrolling through the internet looking for something to stimulate your imagination. Among other things. Under normal circumstances, I would be giving you a preamble that focuses on some core aspect of the themes of our weekly movie but, I confess, this movie leaves me feeling a wee bit on the inadequate side for that this time around. (Another side effect of scrolling endless through certain websites!) After all, the main character and subject of this review has been giving some incredibly sharp and witty commentary on bad horror and lost classics for as long as I’ve had any memory to speak of. Of course, I speak of the always funny, incredibly clever and sexiest horror hostess there ever was, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark! Incidentally, that also happens to be name of the first movie that she ever starred in and what we are taking a look at tonight!
The art of horror hosting was something that started a long while ago and it could be argued that the very first were not seen but heard. If you were terminally uncool when you were younger (like certain people who shall go nameless), you may have been fascinated by the largely forgotten world of radio plays and dramas. These radio programs can trace their roots all the way back to the 1880s, but the fictional stories with actors playing the parts as opposed to reading them really began in the 1920s and by the 30s, we had our plethora of choice in programs to listen to, including horror stories. Granted, they called them mystery or thriller stories but among them was a program called Suspense, which featured a mysterious figure called The Man in Black, who played host to the evening’s tale. The formula was to have our Man in Black start with a bit of cheeky, pun filled pre-show banter, sometimes with a charming lady friend, before introducing a tale of something gruesome or unexplained or sinister. He would return for commercial breaks and for the end to bid the audience goodnight, exactly the way a good horror host should. And we should be equally gracious and thank our good Man in Black for setting the stage for the next stars to come into the world of horror hosting, Zacherley and, of course, Vampira.
From here, let’s get a little bit of history behind us because without Vampira, there would not have been any Elvira, at least as we know her. And, if Maila Nurmi had gotten her way, that’s exactly what she would have preferred. Largely touted as being one of the first, if not the first, horror host, Maila Nurmi first created Vampira in 1953, getting the idea for the character from Charles Addams’ drawings of the original Morticia. Nurmi put a little more of a sexy, vampy spin on the character and Vampira then made her way onto a Los Angeles TV station, introducing b-movies with puns and a dark sense of humor. If you’re thinking, gee golly that sounds an awful lot like what The Man in Black did in his show, then, gee golly, you would be right. The difference was that instead of being the sweet, normal innocent female character playing foil to the creepy pun-ster host, Vampira was foreboding and sinister with a kind of hint of mockery to her delivery. There was also a kind of danger to Vampira that made her instantly fascinating.
In one of her last interviews with Rue Morgue magazine (issue 77), Nurmi described one of her first public outings as the character Vampira, wherein she timed it so that there were crowds in the street to witness her being driven to a cemetery to lay lilies on the grave of an unnamed “beloved” that she never said a word about before being driven away. This wouldn’t cause waves in Hollywood now but in 1953, you’re damn right it did. And so did Nurmi’s stranglehold on the Vampira character. It is said, and I can believe it, that her refusal to allow anyone to take the rights to the vixen with the gallows humor away from her was part of what got The Vampira Show cancelled after a few short years. This also factors heavily into how the character of this evening’s movie came to be.
According to that interview in Rue Morgue, as well as other sources, after years of being blacklisted, Vampira got the call from Hollywood years later in the 80s. Seemed they wanted to revive the show and recreate it for modern audiences. Nurmi is quick to state in the interview that she was not interested in playing the title role again and according to online sources, she’d even championed an actress of color, Lola Falana, to take over the lead role. While that would have been subversive as fuck, studios were less okay with diversity casting back in 1981 and I imagine that if the color of Lola’s skin didn’t immediately get the project a hard no, the fact that she was just shy of forty probably didn’t help. (I’ll put out that this is all speculation on my part but let’s be real for a second, when’s the last time that you saw studio executives vomit up a woman of color who wasn’t barely more than twenty for some role like this, even now?) And so the story goes that Nurmi, ever possessive of her character until she died in 2008, would not sign off on the project and depending on who you listen to, she was either fired or quit over creative disputes. From here, the studio didn’t have Vampira, but they had the makings of a show like the one she used to host. A casting call later, we meet the lovely Cassandra Peterson and suddenly we have a brand new show. And a cease and desist order that ended in Nurmi filing a lawsuit against Peterson for copyright infringement.
I include all of this so we at least have a basis for the film tonight. The major argument that Nurmi was putting out was that Elvira was just a rip off of her original character and the courts disagreed. While I have nothing but respect for Maila Nurmi and her legacy and I have absolutely no doubt that the studio she dealt with gave her a pretty raw deal in the end, I also cannot say that I agree with her in regards to the claim that Peterson ripped off her character. I will happily submit that there’s plenty that we don’t get to see about Vampira’s sense of humor, as her show was filmed live and there is scant footage left of it. That said, there is a major difference in the way the two hostesses approached the role of sexy lady in a low cut black dress. For one, the few jokes that I’ve seen Nurmi make in the little bit that is left of her hosting days is more akin to gallows humor. It’s the kind of barb that makes you laugh but it’s also a little bit a sense that she could turn that sinister gaze on you next. With Nurmi’s Vampira, there was a foreboding sense of mystery and a sense that she was dangerous and cold but you still wanted to know what she was all about and she could still make you laugh. She had a stately manner about her and you couldn’t see her engaging in anything slapstick or undignified. Nor could you see her chasing a man around vying for his attention, so much as you could imagine more than a few lapping at her feet for whatever scraps of afterthoughts she might decide to give them. You’ll want to keep this in mind because this draws in sharp contrast to what we’re going to see in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
And just like, we’re ready to look at the film at hand! Huzzah! And what is this incredibly deep and moving film about? In short: Elvira is a horror hostess whose appearance in a small G-rated town causes monocles to pop and there’s an evil man who wants a spell book that she stumbles into. Also there’s a lot of boob humor in this. If you’re wanting a little more information and wish to engage my gift for verbosity, the tale unfolds as such: Our campy horror hostess is stuck working in a small time TV gig but she dreams of becoming a spooky Vegas showgirl. The TV gig is out within the first few minutes of the film when the sleazy owner of the station decides Elvira’s going to have to sing for her supper but with less singing and more letting him fondle her boobs. When he decides that he’s gonna try to get a handful, Elvira kicks him and the job to the curb, only to find out that her Vegas dreams are going to cost her a shit ton of money.
Because the plot isn’t really that concerned about making sense or setting up things in a way that matters, our heroine is almost immediately presented with a summons that lets her know that she’s got a dearly departed aunt Morgana whom she’s never heard of before but the dead relative was kind enough to leave her something in her will. The plot waits for no one as Elvira assumes that this is the key to making her money troubles disappear and wanders off to a place that looks like it stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting and never left. The place is anti-sex and only plays G-rated movies and almost everyone in it looks like they might be verging on pension age. And imagine the wacky misunderstanding when Elvira shows up for the reading of the will only to find that instead of inheriting all the cash she needed to get to Vegas with, she’s instead the proud owner of a creepy old house, a new dog and a book of recipes that are totally spells. Hilarity and many many more boob jokes ensue.
There’s more to it than that but in truth, this is meant to be a wacky comedy that you already know how it’s going to end before the credits are finished rolling. If there’s anything that’s worse than revealing all the jumpscares of a horror flick in the trailer, it’s telling you all about the funny parts of a comedy movie. And since this one has limited rewatch value if you’re older than ten, if you’re a die hard Elvira fan, I won’t do you the disservice. What I will say is that it’s cheeky and sometimes clever but it’s another comedy that was very much of its time for 1986. Turns out that the 80s didn’t really do sex themes very well but this one, for as awkward as it can be, and I assure you that it is in some places, Elivra has the added distinction of having the perspective of a woman to guide us and relying on the flippancy of that main character. It never tries to take itself too seriously and Elvira isn’t above making a fool of herself. She can be quick but also vapid and occasionally a bit too much but she’s never unforgivable in her role as the almost oblivious but very obvious black sheep in a Stepford style hell. And she’s really the only character we have to guide us through this story so it’s a relief that for all her faults, at least she’s endearing as well as entertaining. Everyone else in this film is nothing more than a stereotype or a cardboard cut out that is meant to either be an ally or a villain. I would be harder on this film for something like this and I will admit to getting more salty over this in other reviews but if we’re being completely honest here, we’re not watching for the other characters (or what passes for them) in this movie. Whether you came for the jiggle or the potential giggle factor, you’re watching because you wanted to see Elvira and she’s well aware of that.
Again with the speculation on this one but if I had to guess why Maila Nurmi wasn’t successful in her bid to call out Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira as an infringement, it’s because while the two look similar (yes, there are differences), there is a very distinctive personality difference in the two characters. We’ve covered Nurmi’s Vampira already, but let’s talk about Peterson’s vampy hostess’, particularly in this film. Elvira definitely had a fix on the sexy aspect of her character but she brought a spunky, ditzy valley girl aspect to the table. There’s a kind of childishness that underlies Elvira’s character and even though sometimes it’s a bit over the top, in some ways, that’s the only appropriate way for it to be. Nurmi once said that she figured that Vampira should be played by a woman in her mid-thirties because she wanted someone who had some life experience behind her. Elvira is sexually mature but her personality has more in common with that of a teenager. This is probably why they are the ones that she befriends in the film. It makes sense, though, because she comes across as a woman who knows what she wants, if only in the moment, and will chase it with the same kind of relentless fervor that a teenage girl would have. In fact, some of her thoughts and fantasies are more in line with Ralphie from A Christmas Story and his quest to get an air rifle from Santa.
What makes that kind of weird is that she’s a very sexually aggressive character but again, this is done in a childish way that is still kind of endearing. And make no mistake, Elvira isn’t looking for a long haul, love of my life kind of romance. This lady wants sex and she’s not hypnotising the men folk with her eyes or sense of mystery. She’s gonna throw them boobs in some faces and make them pay attention, dammit. I would say most of the funnier parts of this are Elvira’s jokes about herself and how they fly over the entirely too innocent head of her love interest. It only ends up with her trying even harder to get her guy on board and having to spell things out for him. I feel like this sums up nicely the major theme of this character here and why the two are so different.
In this film, Elvira has minimal control over her world and is basically at odds with everything and everyone. Her focus, mostly on how to get the money to get to Vegas, is shallow but that only sets up for more of the jokes at her expense. All this said, it never feels cruel. Part of that is because Elvira either finds a way to bend things to her favor or she rolls with the curve balls that she’s thrown. Even in the face of her potential death, she’s not particularly bothered by it so much as annoyed. In fact, she was more annoyed when a townie waitress who was competing for her love interest pulled a prank on her. What makes all of this even funnier is that of all the assets that Elvira has, grace is not always one of them. Whereas I can’t picture Vampira as ever anything but regal and in control of her little world through her commanding force, Elvira is more of a cartoon character who’s only really ever got one foot out of toon town. The slapstick in this film is where it starts to verge on silly and if anyone was going to try to mistake this for a real horror film, they wouldn’t get very far before the first sight gag proved them wrong. And again, Elvira isn’t immune to this. Everyone in this film is subject to falling over or getting on the wrong side of the joke and this is why, despite its faults, I think this is a fun movie about a fun character.
So if you’re wondering, I’m absolutely suggesting that you indulge in this slice of 80s cheese and enjoy the spectacle. It’s corny and dated and some of the jokes haven’t aged well but it’s still enjoyable to watch, despite some cringe aspects. It’s a great showcase of Elvira’s character and, if nothing else, it gives you a great look at how the character has evolved since the early days. If like myself, you’ve got a decent collection of Elvira’s contributions to the world of pop culture, you can kind of use these different pieces to show how she’s changed and how she’s only gotten better. I will say that if this isn’t your cup of arsenic, that’s understandable. There are cringey parts and I’m not kidding when I say that 80s sex humor left a lot to be desired sometimes. If that’s the case but you still want to get your Elvira fix, I very very highly recommend the comic series Elvira, Mistress of the Dark that is available through Dynamite, written by Dave Avallone. It’s a great series that shows how much that wit and humor really shine in Elvira’s character. If you wanted to see where she was and how witty she was right in the beginning, park your brain at the door and enjoy this silly film. After all, you could do a hell of a lot worse than watching the Mistress of the Dark wish you pleasant nightmares.
As always, thank you all for joining me again for another Friday Nightmare Review. If you’re still itching to get more horror hostess action, check out my story updates on Mondays! Meet Dead Eye Dolly, a horror hostess, and her monstrous friends as they contend with real monsters and online trolls as they attempt to put on a weekly online show. And be sure to come back for more spooky movie review surprises towards the end of the month. Thanks again and here’s hoping that you all enjoy a little vampy fun this weekend!