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Set back in 1851 in the Carpathia Mountains of Romania, Elvira the Mistress of the Dark" en route to Paris with her maidservant Zou Zou for a can-can revue, stop for the night at a haunted castle owned by a certain Vladimir Hellsubus whose long dead wife bears an eerie resemblance to Elvira. Written by
On the surface this is a spoof of the films made by Roger Corman and other directors who worked in the genre during the same period. There are direct references to "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The House of Usher" as well as less direct references to films such as "The Raven" and "The Comedy of Terrors". The overall "look" of the film resembles those films and the work that came out of Hammer Studios during the same period but does so without looking like an imitation of them. With its rich textures and lush colors its appearance is never less than striking.
The performances from most of the supporting cast are all way over the top. Scott Atkinson is hilarious in the role of the doctor, Bradley Bradley. Everything he comes out with seems as if it's sucked from his chest and thrown at the camera. The way his accent changes as his role in the proceedings becomes more defined is a brilliant touch. Mary Scheer performs her role as the adulteress as if she were a classic comic book villain, the type whose passion burns most brightly when she's manipulating everyone around her to the max. Elvira's character makes an excellent foil for her. Heather Hopper's portrayal as the sickly Roxanna (part whooping cough, part "Night of the Living Dead" stiff and full time punching bag for the rest of the cast) is a howl. The notion of dubbing in the dialog spoken by Gabriel Andronache (who reportedly speaks next to no English) was a brilliant one. The first scene between him and Peterson is one for the books. Richard O' Brien has a role that that demands all the pork from Ham Central, and it's one that he appears to have relished playing. The scenes he shares with Peterson appear to have been a joy for both of them.
The excesses of most of the performances are balanced by the understated work from Peterson and Mary Jo Smith. Smith is absolutely adorable as Zou Zou, Elvira's much-abused maid. She plays the role with a combination of dry wit, self-depreciation and vulnerability that can't help but strike a chord. Peterson plays the "Elvira" character with her usual flair. That mix of impish playfulness and canny intellect combined with sweet innocence, brazen sexuality and doltish buffoonery that made the character a cult classic is wholly intact. Her comic timing remains razor sharp.
There's far more to the film though. It goes past the obvious to address (and skewer) a variety of topics. Richard O' Brien's soliloquies put the most overblown passages of Shakespearean Theatre to shame. The dubbing in foreign action films takes a hit or three. The way the use of accents is often bungled by actors and filmmakers is harpooned in a way that's wonderfully original. The "special effects" used for the cataclysmic moment of the film look as if they were intended to be worse than things Ed Wood would've come up with (though it doesn't quite hit that mark). Aging women who cram killer bodies under thick layers of paint (makeup) and thin layers of tight clothing spend parts of the film taking one hit after another.
There's no doubt the reigning Queen of Vamp Camp is showing her age. But she's using it to great advantage. The character seems older. Her sexuality is more overt. She has less patience for playing at being coy. She works too hard to be the center of attention. She doesn't miss any chances to show her "assets". The camera captures the physical side of things. One of the most revealing of them highlights the ways gravity works on an aging figure regardless of how well it's been taken care of, and it happens early in the film as if to make sure all the viewers take note her of age. Peterson is far too intelligent not to have noticed it but she left it in.
If anyone is the right person to be spoofing the foibles of aging vamps it's Cassandra Peterson. She's old enough to be one of those characters in day-to-day life and she would look great in any of the outfits they pour themselves into. More importantly, she understands any subject matter she touches thoroughly, addresses it without meanness or cynicism and applies a measure of balance to it in the process. She jabs Zou Zou for her looks but makes sure that character is the first to light a fire under somebody's libido. The man with the dubbed-in-lines may look silly because his mouth doesn't match his words but he gets the girl. The aging vamp may fall in holes because she's wearing heels instead of runners the way those vamp wannabees would but the male characters still can't keep their hands off her. It all works because of Peterson's charm and because of the balanced overview she brings to the subject matter.
This is a picture that may find its wider audience in years to come. It's played as camp in a way that may alienate a lot of viewers and there's no doubt a lot of the jokes are lame. But that's all done intentionally. Essentially, it's a good movie that's made to look as if it was bad. Don't be fooled. There's a lot there to stimulate thought and enough light fun to make it easy to keep going back for another look. Today's dog (though it's anything but one) may be one of tomorrow' classics.
Thanks Cassandra. This was worth waiting for.
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