As a kid with a profoundly accelerated imagination, there was no way I would ever watch something horror-related even though I frequently wanted to. Scoping out the VHS cover art while waiting in line at Kroger’s or hitting my local video store, I’d wonder about the various horrific stories kept inside. Thing is, even time my curiosity got the better of me, I paid for it in spades. Even now, I possess a vague recollection of a late-night film I stumbled upon while camping out in the tv area of my grandparent’s beach condo in which the killer took notice of the people watching at home and attempting to get us. Reading the words is evidence enough that the premise is ridiculous, but it hit me in my psyche and has never let go. Perhaps that’s why I never checked out anything associated with premiere horror pin-up Elvira, the stage name for actor/writer/producer/singer Cassandra Peterson, as I presumed she was a new generation Vincent Price. (I may not have watched the genre, but I still kept tabs on the notables.) What I didn’t realize at the time, but I do understand now, is that Elvira is less straight bone-chilling horror and more appreciator of low-rent horror. She advocates for the Ed Woods of the horror universe, is a beacon of sex positivity and feminism, and is all out supporter of cinema in all its forms. Perhaps that’s why Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is so hilariously awesome, perhaps more-so than you’d expect, because Peterson so totally understands what it takes to make a “bad” movie that only her influence could make one near perfect.
After fighting off the unwanted advances of her new station owner, Elvira (Peterson) quits her late-night movie hosting gig and begins her move to Las Vegas where a job offer awaits for her to headline her own show. There’s just one problem: the producers want her to pony-up a $50k investment before they’ll greenlight it. Just as Elvira seems destined for failure, a message arrives letting her know that she’s been invited to a will reading for Great-Aunt Morgana. As Elvira loads her car and heads to Fallwell, Massachusetts, she thinks she’s headed toward a payday that’ll change her life. What she doesn’t know is how deadly right she is.
When Mistress of the Dark was released in 1988, it’s difficult to image that anyone would think it would be getting the restoration treatment at any point thereafter. It is, by and large, a film made by and for a specific niche of cinema-lovers. But if one is to love cinema at its “highest,” it’s important to understand it at “lowest” too. For the people who make films like Return of the Killer Tomatoes, they love movies just as much as the people who make Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Each carry a significance within the halls of cinema history and it is obvious why Mistress remains a fan favorite: this film was made to honor those who love midnight movies, those misbegotten folks who revel in the macabre yet wish no Earthly-bound citizen any harm. For all of its low-grade appearances, that’s what Mistress is, a loving homage to Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957), The Blob (1958), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and House II: The Second Story (1987). It’s in the way that things happen: sometimes for no particular reason or just because the narrative demands it. It’s in the way that the town of Fallwell seems comprised of tight-buttoned normies who wouldn’t know a good time if it sat on their face. It’s in the way that the hero of the story isn’t simply Elvira, but the notions of agency and self-respect that come with her. All of this is packaged with the same foibles and self-awareness of the films Elvria promotes via her in-film and out-of-film personage. Because of her and the film’s candor, we just go with it.
And why wouldn’t we? From the opening moments of the film, Mistress of the Dark presents to the audience, not a high quality horror flick, but something from the Nuclear Age with over the top acting and an obvious low budget. This doesn’t automatically mean that the film we’re shown is bad, it just means that the standards for entertainment have changed. In a similar way, Mistress of the Dark rides the same line. Peterson as Elvira is perfect-pitch camp as nearly every line is loaded with mostly harmless sex jokes and innuendoes that don’t so much wink at the camera (though Peterson herself does more than once) as execute a gentle, loving clam stamp upon its audience. Amazingly, Mistress of the Dark is loaded with subtext regarding consent and age-appropriateness, as well as respecting members of a differing community, all while still including hornball high schoolers, a subplot involving sexual repression, another subplot involving witchcraft, and even a romance. Yet each one is set-up so that they flow naturally to create small moments of character tension which culminate in an eruption of ridiculousness that’ll have you howling with laughter by the end.
If you’re not new to Mistress of the Dark, why would Arrow Video’s release interest you? A few things come to mind.
First, there’s the optional introduction from director James Signorelli, which you should not skip. It could be your first time or your millionth time watching Mistress of the Dark — don’t jump past that option. It perfectly sets the tone for the feature film which follows. The film itself is a restoration of a 4K scan of original film elements, so while it doesn’t look like it was made today, it certainly doesn’t appear 32 years old where it counts. Elvira’s character-specific wardrobe is hauntingly black, the colors used to paint her great-aunt’s house are vibrant, and the dark scenes which encompass the end of the film offer zero cloud or distortion. Do keep in mind that this release from April 2020 in the U.S. is the same as the December 2018 U.K release from Arrow Video, so anything available in that edition is available here as well. That means audio commentaries from 2017, as well as the restored feature-length documentary Too Macabre – The Making of “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark”, as well as “Recipe for Terror: The Creation of the Pot Monster” visual f/x exploration. There may not be much new here compared to the previous release, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the price of admission.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark Special Features
- Brand new restoration from a 4K scan of original film elements
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Original uncompressed stereo 2.0 audio
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Introduction to the film by director James Signorelli
- 2017 Audio Commentary with director James Signorelli, hosted by Fangoria editor emeritus Tony Timpone
- 2017 Audio Commentary with Patterson Lundquist, http://elviramistressofthedark.com/ webmaster and judge of US TV show The Search for the Next Elvira
- Archival Audio Commentary with actors Cassandra Peterson, Edie McClurg and writer John Paragon
- Too Macabre – The Making of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark – newly-revised 2018 version of this feature-length documentary on the making of the film, including interviews with various cast and crew and rare never-before-seen archival material
- Recipe for Terror: The Creation of the Pot Monster – newly-revised 2018 version of this featurette on the concept and design of the pot monster, as well as the film’s other SFX
- Original storyboards
- Extensive image galleries
- Original US theatrical and teaser trailers
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.