If you try to use self-awareness to try to show that you're too smart to be bad then your name might be Scream and you might be a baby of the late-1990s, during which the word “meta” was all the rage and clichés were a-ok so long as you did them right. Stand in a spot grounded in other decade and you can call yourself an original, Re-Animator and The Evil Dead being the grandaddies of them all.
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, from 1988, tries and sometimes wins as a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy, though the horror is more humorous schlock than horror and the comedy is much too reliant on the little-goes-a-long-way craft of the one-liner.
We all know and love Elvira, the big-breasted 1980s screen personality (portrayed by the endlessly self-deprecating Cassandra Peterson) who made a living hosting episodes of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, a series devoted to airing exquisitely awful movies, her Valley Girl accent making smart ass comments in the background. As a guy who gets his throwback kicks from Twin Peaks and The X-Files, I hardly have time to sit around and watch movies with smarmy commentary already embedded in them — sometimes, I like to do the roasting myself. But I like Elvira, with her pre-Lana Del Rey beehive ‘do, her enviable ability to consistently be pleased with herself, and her heaving bosom. A screen personality such as hers would never make it in the 2010s (if we can’t handle Kylie Jenner’s big ass lips, could we really handle a shapely woman dressed up like a vampiress auditioning for RuPaul’s drag race?), making her existence all the more precious; she is an era definer, and a charismatic one at that.
So it’s a shame that her first foray into cinema, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is an uneven big screen comedy, unsure of whether it wants to continue on the same path as Movie Macabre or if it wants to develop its titular mistress as a box-office commodity rather than a small screen scene stealer.
A lot of it is delectable — much of the one-liners are quotable, and the fish-out-of-water-based comedy makes for some sticky situations — but frustratingly often is the feeling that everything besides Elvira is flat, her doing all the heavy lifting while running around and laughing at her own jokes like a camp Phyllis Diller. We could blame Peterson and her team of writers for forgetting to concoct at least one other funny character — but we could also wag a finger at the fizzy direction of James Signorelli or the cardboard cast. Accusations could be thrown everywhere, a major sign of a movie with a lot of potential that doesn’t quite work out in the end.
As the film opens, we find Elvira undergoing another taping of her popular show — and while her devoted audience laps it up, Elvira herself is miserable. Her producers take her for granted, and the studio is stricken with low production values that hinder her work. She is on the verge of quitting, especially considering she is about to take an offer that will provide her with her own stage show in Las Vegas. A few sexual harassment incidents later, and bam! — her dreams of shredding her contract finally end. But missing is the money she needs to land a venue all the way down in Nevada, which makes the coincidental passing of a distant relative a gift from God. Inheritance is a very real possibility.
So Elvira travels down to her estranged aunt’s estate in her gaudy convertible, her heavy metal blasting, her red lipstick omnipresent in the glare of the sun. Trouble is, her aunt doesn’t live in a community much willing to welcome unwanted (or wanted, depending on how you get your rocks off) cleavage and sexually suggestive wise-cracks, making Elvira’s entrance a bombastic explosion in a land of white picket fences and Jesus freaks. The situation worsens when Elvira discovers that she has only inherited her aunt’s mansion, her dog, and a mysterious cookbook that her uncle has an odd obsession with.
It’s all good, wily fun, but Elvira, Mistress of the Dark’s most pertinent issue stems from the fact that it thinks it’s smarter than it is — though the one-liners are decent and Peterson always seems ready to jump onto a stand-up stage, it forgets that sappy interludes and constantly laughing at your own jokes isn’t a good thing unless you do it right. It gets it right, mostly. But not quite enough. C+