As the film celebrates its 35th anniversary, EJ Moreno explores the birth of a horror icon with Elvira: Mistress of the Dark…
To discuss the anniversary of the cult classic Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, we first need to look at the titular Elvira, played to chic perfection by Cassandra Peterson.
Elvira was born Cassandra Peterson in 1951, living a midwestern life in Kansas. That’s where our spooky Dorthy Gale discovered the magic of horror. Peterson watched her first horror movie in elementary school, the classic B-movie The House on Haunted Hill. With that discovery, Peterson would enter genre entertainment, trading her William Castle for Ed Wood. Long before Elvira was even a twinkle in her eye, Cassandra Peterson knew she would find her home in the world of the macabre.
But before she’d commit a life to a chic goth aesthetic, Peterson found her calling as a showgirl. She’d be a drag-inspired go-go dancer in Colorado, where she also performed for soldiers at Fort Carson. This would later send Peterson to Vegas, but wise advice from Elvis himself made sure she didn’t stay there.
With the need to expand her brand beyond looks and the Vegas strip, which Elvis said she needed to further herself, she’d explore a few different avenues. Most notably, Peterson enjoyed some time as a lead singer for a few bands in the early 70s. Though she loved performing on stage, she found that her calling could be a bit more theatrical; Peterson would join the iconic LA-based troupe The Groundlings in 1979.
This served as the perfect playing ground for Peterson, and she’d use all the lives she lived in her early days to shape her future.
As any comedic actor from the 80s will tell you, The Groundlings is where you’d craft a character. It was a hotbed for artists to workshop some exciting works; think Paul Reubens before Pee Wee, Will Ferrell before SNL, and so many other excellent comedy names.
Among them was Cassandra Peterson, who was working on a Valley girl-type character. She found her footing in this role and would later tour an act called Mama’s Boy which mixed her camp appeal with her growing admiration for the queer community.
Everything began falling into place, but Peterson struggled to find her signature role. Then, the role of Elvira well onto her lap, begrudgingly at first. With years of auditions and the idea of becoming a horror host for local television, Peterson felt this could be a dead end.
During the last days of auditions, Peterson would finally showcase her work, and it instantly knocked away producers. With permission from The Vampira Show, they’d soon begin to develop a show inspired by what Vampira did, but with a much-needed 80s update.
Finally, after some legal issues from Vampira, Elvira’s Movie Macabre would debut in the fall of 1981.
The series Elvira’s Movie Macabre put the actress on the map. From here, she’d appear on talk shows and commercials, cementing herself as a staple in the lives of young horror fans. For a while, genre lovers couldn’t escape the buxom horror host. From 1981 to 1986, the show covered films like Peeping Tom, Masque of the Red Death, The Creature’s Revenge, and more. It helped bring classic horror to then-modern fans, which made Peterson’s Elvira great to look at and served as a sort of horror historian.
She’d wear that moniker with pride, passing along the love of horror, all while building her legacy for fans. The hard work and genre love paid off when NBC approached Cassandra to spin the character off into something more. Originally pitched as a television series, Peterson felt Elvira was meant for more, wanting her on the big screen.
Enter Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.
The actress quickly began recruiting all the key figures to make a film, returning to her roots at The Groundlings and honoring the man who helped create the icon, Robert Redding. Cassandra Peterson and her co-writer John Paragon were cooking a potent witches brew together, but we soon saw Sam Egan enter the fold to help polish things as an experienced TV writer. The hunt for a director began, and the project almost had an iconic helmer.
Peterson went to her friend Tim Burton to help bring her vision to life, as the pair were an obvious fit. She had just worked with him on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and he quickly moved towards the macabre. But sadly for the Elvira film, Burton would soon become too busy with Beetlejuice to focus on anything else. Eventually, NBC president brought on James Signorelli to helm the project.
Filming began in 1988, giving Cassandra her first big Hollywood production. In true industry fashion, filming Elvira: Mistress of the Dark was no easy task.
The racier material already scared off legendary actors like Vincent Price; it was on a crew of young and hungry talent to get the film made. Though none were utterly oblivious to filmmaking, nailing a feature film can be tricky, especially for our leading lady. In a making-of-documentary, Peterson addressed how it felt being the production’s centerpiece, even feeling hesitation about her character’s big monologue. However, reciting lines would prove to be one of the more minor issues.
Infamously, production broke one of those rules in filmmaking: never work with animals. The film features a canine costar, Binnie, a poodle. As expected, things did not work out as they’d hoped with a temperamental dog who listened to no one put their trainer. This led to entire scenes being dubbed to remove trainer commands and one incident leading to actor Kurt Fuller getting bitten in the ankle.
Having a nearly $8 million production, it was no tiny budget production but still was pretty limited. With the lower budget, hectic production, and cast/crew being relatively green, it was quite the joy when filming wrapped eight weeks later.
It was time for Elvira to go from the small screen to the world of movie stars, but would she be embraced as lovingly?
Like her idols, Ed Wood & William Castle, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark was met with general confusion from the mainstream, with the film landing negative critical reviews and failing to recoup its budget back at the box office.
No one expected blockbuster-level success for the film, but Elvira’s movie outing didn’t find its home with moviegoers, at least not yet. For horror fans, slasher mania was still happening, so the Elm Street and Halloween sequels released around the time took the stranglehold over the community. Yet, there was still a market for the film, and that group ended up being the LGBTQ community, who latched onto the fish-out-of-water story and the campier elements. The queer community would pioneer Elvira throughout her career, and they seemed like the ones to get the film.
Peterson would go on to get nominated for the film at two awards shows, one being the genre-filled Saturn Award for Best Actress and the other being an “Oscars for Bad Movies” Razzie Award for Worst Actress in 1989. Elvira would go home empty-handed for both films and joke about the latter at the time, saying, “I even lost the worst actress; now that’s sad!”
All wasn’t lost for Elvira: Mistress of the Dark as the film would soon wind up on home video release and become one of the staples in the VHS era of the 90s. The film would undergo a slight critical reevaluation, mostly stemming from horror fans who finally gave the film a chance and her budding cult following.
With issues with the company New World, the negative reviews, and poor box office performance, you could think Cassandra Peterson would pack up her bags in shame. But she did the opposite; she doubled down on merchandise and pushed her brand even harder. She’d get a pilot for a sitcom in 1993 and a 2001 film.
And let’s not forget her unofficial title as Queen of Halloween; it seemed like every year we’d see Mistress of the Dark played on more TV stations, and Cassandra would tour the Elvira character worldwide. She never forget the LGBTQ community along the way, dedicating the film to her late friend who helped create Elvira. The actress would later come out herself, revealing a longtime relationship with a woman. Every era of her career was filled with love and support for the horror and queer fans who helped carry her through the more challenging times.
Many thought a failed film would be a death sentence, but in a twisted way, it further cemented her campy cult horror status. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark gave Cassandra Peterson a forever home in the genre and gave us fans a forever favorite.
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