Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a strange movie. It’s from an era of ‘80s comedies that people tend—or try—to forget. This would be the same era that gave us Repossessed and Transylvania 6-5000, along with actual forbidden gems like My Best Friend is a Vampire. Most of the comedies churned out during this chunk of time were not good, but Elvira surprisingly managed to stand out. Which is pretty surprising, considering it had everything, um, stacked against it.
It seems like the least profitable decision to give a horror host—something that was already dying out by this point in the ‘80s—her very own feature film. The success is almost entirely owed to Cassandra Peterson. It says a lot that there was enough faith in the over-the-top character the actress had created to convince people that they could get a movie’s worth out of her. I mean, as popular as the Crypt Keeper was in his heyday, even HBO never made him the star when the Tales from the Crypt franchise branched out into features.
Yet even when you simply look at the plot for this first feature vehicle for Elvira, it’s kind of awesome. And it’s perfect for the time in the ‘80s in which it was made. This is the story of a hothead, larger than life character who moves to a small, conservative rural town. They’re all uptight and unhappy, and she teaches them to loosen up and have a little more fun. It sounds like a perfectly workable movie plot and that’s because it’s also the plot to Footloose.
The difference here is that Elvira is stripped of all metaphor. And that’s a good thing, too. Subtlety has never exactly been the strong suit of the mistress of the dark. These poor repressed people, both young and old, aren’t learning about the benefits of dancing and why it can be a good thing to let dancing into your heart, to embrace dancing with someone you find special—no, Elvira is essentially teaching them that it’s okay to have sex.
It’s kind of a stroke of genius that the people at New World Pictures found a way to turn Elvira’s sassy, tongue-in-cheek sex appeal into the film’s actual plot. There’s probably no other way to take this character and spin her off into a feature, as evidenced by the eventual follow-up Elvira’s Haunted Hills.
I know it all sounds ridiculous to say because Footloose is considered an ‘80s classic and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is, well, not. But that doesn’t change the fact that the two films compliment each other remarkably well. In one movie, dancing is kind of a metaphor for sex. In the other, sex is sex. Similarly, the witch hunt elements of Elvira take the form of an actual witch hunt.
Whether the movie is intentionally parodying Footloose, and I like to think it must be to some degree, it still manages to say some surprisingly smart-if-on-the-nose things about mob mentality and repression. You can stick to whatever values you hold dear, but they don’t mean much if you’re not happy.
Repression, in general, is naturally reoccurring theme in horror. Mostly, it’s contextualized by violent media and fans of violent, dark and otherwise weird stuff not being labeled as psychotic just because of the forms of entertainment they enjoy. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is not nearly this deep, but it does broach the topic on a very general level.
It’s about the dangers of keeping your own desires completely bottled up, about how people tend to lash out at each other when they don’t want to admit things about themselves or believe that they need to uphold a certain image or standard—and it’s all told through interpretive jiggling.
It’s a bizarre, silly, occasionally even stupid movie but I’d like to think that it did exactly what it set out to do: make John Waters proud. A film like this needed to be this campy if it was even going to work at all. That’s why we have Elvira doing Flashdance, suiting up like Rambo, getting ogled by Will from Dream Warriors and giving a poodle a punk makeover and it all sort of makes sense in its own way.
So if you’ve never seen Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, it’s the perfect film to watch to get a taste of why this character has lasted as long as she has. If you wonder why Elvira is still relevant, still gets talked about and hosts new exclusives on Hulu every October, this is why. This movie—while it may be Footloose with boobs—is also the distilled essence of Elvira and I love it for that.