Elvira's Haunted Hills October 10, 2016
Cassandra Peterson’s got the best character-driven schtick since Mae West, but cinematic success has mostly eluded her. While her Mystery Science Theater 3000-reminiscent cult TV series Elvira’s Movie Macabre has hardly aged as a favorite for the trash-minded cinephile, her two Elvira-centric features, Mistress of the Dark and Elvira’s Haunted Hills, have remained mostly unseen and mostly critically vilified. Because her smarmy asides and sarcastic witticisms hold a great deal more power when in the role of a hostess and not a leading lady, the overlooking of her movie career is mostly deserved.
That’s not to suggest that Peterson isn’t a lovable comedienne — to watch her is to cherish her — but it does suggest that some platforms are superior to others for screen personalities with a highly specific persona. While 1988’s Mistress of the Dark has not ceased in its being a tonally uneven and inarguably haphazard romp, 2001’s Elvira’s Haunted Hills, a sequel of sorts given an extremely limited release, is a far more assured lark; Peterson’s one-liners never much wear out their welcome akin to Mistress of the Dark, and the fish-out-of-water underlinings of the storyline work much better here than they did previously.
Because this time around, Peterson’s voluptuous Elvira isn’t cavorting somewhere in the darkest depths of small-town America. Here, she is, inexplicably but nevertheless welcomely, slinking around a Hammer Horror imitating 1800s Europe, where she’s a popular can-can dancer with a loyal maid (Mary Jo Smith) by her side.
As the film opens, however, she’s not much living a carefree life: after a fiscal misunderstanding gets her kicked out of the inn where she’s currently residing, Elvira and her assistant are generously aided by Dr. Bradley Bradley (Scott Atkinson), who invites them to stay at the Castle Hellsbus, which is nestled high above the rest of the village wherein she’s staying.
Bradley’s good samaritanism, though, does prove to be too good to be true: shortly upon arrival does Elvira notice that she spookily resembles the deceased wife of the castle’s host, the hippy dippy Lord Vladmire Hellsbus (Richard O’Brien). If Hellsbus himself weren’t an odd embodiment of Vincent Price-imitating madness, then maybe it’d all be a coincidence. But such isn’t the case, and Elvira’d be smart to get the hell of out the castle before she becomes a quasi bride of Frankenstein for the new millennium.
She, of course, doesn’t make it out in time, but that at least gives Haunted Hills opportunity aplenty to pay homage to heaps of respectable classic horror, from the disturbing The Black Cat to the iconic The Pit and the Pendulum. Unlike Mistress of the Dark, Peterson seems to be in her zone in Haunted Hills — instead of getting to vocally reference her favorite pieces of cinematic terror without much supplemental pizzazz, she gets to act them out, and there’s a touching splendor to that.
So while I can’t call Elvira’s Haunted Hills a perfect piece of filmmaking — it really and truly does feel like an extended TV special strung together by talented people working on a wing and a prayer — Peterson’s self-referentiality and knowing sense of humor is enough to keep it floating. B