21st Century Rewatch: Elvira, Mistress of Third Wave Feminism
When I was a little girl, I looked up to Elvira. When I was a kid, I didn’t know why I looked up to her and I certainly didn’t admit the fact to anyone. But now I’m an adult and I totally understand it and I wear it proudly! Elvira IS a role model. Lemme explain.
Back in the late 80s and 90s, girls were told to look up to the handful of women with “important” or “serious” jobs. Mind you, there weren’t that many (this is back in the era where “Madame” Curie apparently lacked a first name, after all), so people like Sally Ride or Diane Sawyer were recycled endlessly in some kind of weird look-you-don’t-have-to-be-a-mommy loop. Women entertainers were fluff, essentially. But… oh, that lure of Elvira was so strong. Recently, I rewatched Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988) and the pieces fell into place. She’s one of the first instances I ever remember seeing of third wave feminism.
Here’s a brief synopsis if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen it because it’ll be relevant to the discussion later on:
A plot: Elvira quits her job as a tv horror hostess after she’s sexually harassed by her new boss. She dreams of starring in her own Las Vegas show, but needs to self fund it.
B Plot: Elvira inherits her previously unknown aunt’s house, dog, and recipe book. Her aunt turns out to have really been a witch and her warlock uncle is determined to get the recipe book, which is actually a book of spells.
C Plot: The city council hates Elvira’s appearance and attitude and seeks to smite her at every turn, including blocking her from getting a job, spoiling her midnight movie fundraiser, refusing to let the local teens associate with her, and eventually attempting to burn her as a witch.
Eventually the three plots converge in a scene where the stress of the witch-burning causes Elvira to realize her witch-powers, she thwarts her evil uncle’s plans to steal the book and gain immortality, and, as Vincent’s only relative, she inherits enough to fund her Vegas show.
Here’s what so special about Elvira and why I think she deserves to be an icon of third wave feminism. Elvira is utterly confident about herself and her ability to make choices. Elvira is very sexy in an extremely showy way. She has elaborate hair and vampy makeup and she wears her signature super low cut tight black dress with a high slit.
But here’s the thing, it’s very clear that this is what Elvira likes to wear, she’s totally aware of the image she’s presenting, and she’s completely unapologetic for it. We never get a scene of how she transforms into Elvira, in fact, we know from a hilarious flashback of a baby in heavy makeup and a wig, that she’s always been like this. She doesn’t need an origin story where she was a cheerleader bitten by a radioactive Sandman comic. It’s also clearly a choice on her part. In one scene, teen boys attempt to peep through her window, intent on seeing her undress. The joke’s on them, though, because Elvira catches them in the act and in reality is wearing a robe and a mud mask. She plays a similar joke on the voyueristic viewer a few minutes later when we see her laying on a silken pillow, with her hair fanned out over a black sexy nightgown. This turns out to be a dream sequence and she’s really wearing a band t-shirt and has her hair wrapped in toilet paper. The movie knows the audience isn’t much better than the boys. Elvira could, presumably, change her appearance to fit in with the town, but she doesn’t want to and doesn’t think she should have to. She should be able to wear whatever she wants and not be slut shamed, peeped at, or harassed.
Her refusal to accept harassment is an ongoing theme in the movie. In the opening scene, the new station owner suggests she should sleep with him in order to keep her job. She quits on the spot without being cowed or shamed into silence. When she tries to get a drink in the town bowling alley, she has no problem rebuffing the advances of the lowlifes who decide that she’s asking for it because of how she’s dressed. She doesn’t need a rescuer because she can rescue herself. That’s not to say that she isn’t sexually interested. She repeatedly makes jokes about having sex in an easy offhand way that suggests she enjoys sex, but cannot be forced or coerced into it by others. This is called into play when she meets the theater owner. He’s a big handsome guy and she’s there for it. In a nice reversal of stereotypes, however, he’s the damsel: kind of dumb, lacking in agency, slightly sexually naive, and clearly needing a clever person like Elvira to liberate him from his problems.
That’s not to say Elvira isn’t nice because, while she has no problem firing back on those who are mean to her, she’s good to those who are good to her. She’s helpful and kind to the teens who help her with her house and generally pretty sweet to everyone she encounters, if full of corny jokes and sexual innuendos. It’s only when someone makes the first aggressive move, that she’s aggressive back. She may look like a vampire, but her character is more like Pollyanna with a backbone of steel. We see this demonstrated early on when she offers a ride to a hitchhiker in the desert and moments later tosses him out the door, yelling “here, you forgot your axe!” Ultimately, Elvira is a woman who can take care of herself.
The confidence in her choices is particularly fun here because it subverts the usual story of an oddball young woman trying to fit in in a small town. Elvira never actually tries to fit in. For the most part, she’s perfectly happy living outside their strict social order because she values herself more than their opinions of her. Eventually, a number of the townspeople do accept her, but, crucially, they are the onlookers who disapproved but failed to intervene when more powerful members of society were cruel to Elvira, not the powerful members themselves. The one exception is Patty who underwhelmingly apologizes for burning her at the stake, but Elvira is catty back at her. Clearly, Elvira is not going to forget about others’ transgressions just because they say they’re sorry. In a more typical story of this type, the bullies would apologize, admit they were wrong all along, and our heroine would live happily ever after in the town that now loves her. Elvira, not only doesn’t fall into the mean council people’s arms, she doesn’t even stay in the town. Her dream, after all, is to go to Las Vegas, not settle in a little town, and she finally gets there.
The movie isn’t perfect. In particular, it’s directed in a fairly flat way with uninspired camera angles and the bad lighting looks like a cheap tv show. Her Las Vegas show definitely deserved more pizzazz. That being said, it’s also genuinely fun to watch due to Elvira’s character and a number of self-referential qualities in the script. The critics, however, absolutely hated it. Rotten Tomatoes still lists it at only 48% Fresh and the initial reviews were awful. Cassandra Peterson was even given a Razzie for Worst Actress. I have transcribed the entirety of Siskel and Ebert’s review of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark below because it’s rather hard to find:
Ebert: Our next movie involves the adventures of Elvira, the syndicated tv hostess who is sometimes the best thing about watching creature features…. The movie is called Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and it stars the raven-haired vampire woman and her plunging neckline in an adventure in a small New England town that is shocked when Elvira turns up to claim her inheritance from a long lost relative. Right from the start, the townspeople don’t like the look of her. That’s Cassandra Peterson repeating the role she made famous on television. When Elvira’s aunt’s will is read, she’s left a house, a dog, and a recipe book. But the recipes turn out to involve black magic and when she tries one of them, her surprise casserole turns out to be a bigger surprise than she anticipated. There isn’t much of a plot, but what little there is consists of Elvira’s attempts to make friends with the local teenagers. Her approach is to tell them a lot of corny jokes. It was WC Fields who once refused to star in any movie that featured children, dogs, or plunging necklines. He was afraid he’d be upstaged by those three elements visually. Well, this movie is only missing the kid. It has the dog and it has the plunging neckline and one of the problems that Elvira has is she keeps upstaging herself. Her appearance is so wild that her performance seems tame by comparison. The plot is corny and dumb and Elvira’s one liners get tiresome when we hear them for an entire movie. She’s like the guest who comes to the party and can’t turn off the material. The Elvira character is intriguing, but I think she’d be better off in an up to date satire instead of this old fashioned recycled B picture that seems inspired by the same kind of bad movies that Elvira makes fun of on television. If she weren’t in this film, I bet she could do a real good job on it.
Siskel: The problem is there’s no story here. I mean, you have her walking around in her makeup and her plunging neckline and her beehive hairdo, or whatever it is. And, uh, too much hair. If I can say that. And she doesn’t have anything to do. I mean, she’s got one big special effect, which we just saw, and end of movie and I don’t know who they’re selling it to. It’s not sexy, it’s not funny, and it’s not a good teenaged horror movie.
Ebert: It might be for children if it weren’t for the fact that some of the language and some of the situations are inappropriate.
Siskel: She has a couple of jokes that made me laugh. There was a glimpse of some bright writing. You could take a character like her and really have fun with it. They did not.
Ebert: The screenplay didn’t do it.
Grooooooooooooooooooan. Ugh. A review that mentions “plunging neckline” four times in two and a half minutes. Okay, get it together and analyze.
So here’s their critiques: Elvira is distracting as a character, her jokes are corny, they’re unsure of the audience, the movie has no plot, and… that’s pretty much it. It’s hard to take this as anything other than sexism when so much of it revolves around her appearance. Siskel seems so overwhelmed by hormones he’s unable to string together a coherent sentence (I left out more “ummm…”’s that a sophomore practicing public speaking). I guess that when Ebert says she upstages herself he means that he spent so much time ogling her “plunging neckline” that he’s unable to focus on the words coming out of her mouth. As far as her appearance and jokes go, this is already an established character. She’s doing a bit and fairly successfully in my opinion managed to extend that bit into an entire character with motivations, thoughts, and feelings. The audience, presumably, would be the people who watched her tv show, which I would imagine was a cross section of adolescents and adults who enjoyed it. It has a similar tone as her tv works and is titillating but not explicit in a way that works for a fairly wide age range. There’s a reason the woman was able to perform a show at Knott’s Berry Farm for 21 years. The plot thing throws me a little, because there is a lot of plot, which is why I summarized it above. I even left out bits like Elvira accidentally turning the town picnic into an orgy. So what happened here?
The main reason why I think the answer is sexism is because of the way Ebert champions the character of Pee-wee Herman. They’re pretty much mirror images of each other. Both characters originated from Paul Reubens and Cassandra Peterson’s time at The Groundlings, their films have similar tones and ratings, and both came out in the 1980s. Admittedly, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was directed by a young Tim Burton who creates beautiful imagery and a fantastical atmosphere. Elvira was directed by a guy who primarily directs Saturday Night Live and the level of artistry is not comparable. However, Pee-wee has an even simpler plot, an ostensibly more annoying character, a more questionable audience (Big Adventure predates the tv show), and an equally weird looking character. Even if we take Tim Burton out of the equation, Ebert still enjoyed Big Top Pee-wee, which premiered the same year as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and lacks a lot of the peculiar charm of Big Adventure. The main difference seems to be that Ebert was better able to relate and pay attention to a strange makeup-wearing unusually-dressed corny-joking skinny boy-man than can to a strange makeup-wearing unusually-dressed corny-joking sexually-liberated goth-woman. I wouldn’t really take issue with this except he’s unable to see that himself, blaming his lack of disconnect on plot problems and minor differences in shtick.
The ability to see beyond her neckline, however, has broadened since 1988. Cassandra Peterson is an extremely beautiful woman, but there’s a bigger reason why she’s held public attention for more than thirty years. When I was a kid, when this movie came out, being a feminist was about what you could achieve in serious areas like politics, journalism, and science not about how ordinary women felt and conducted themselves in every day life. Third wave feminism Elvira’s decisions to wear sexy dresses and be a Vegas showgirl (two things Peterson did herself) were viewed as a woman being objectified and demeaned. Sally Ride, after all, did not wear her space suit open to the navel. But we can go broader than that. Feminism means a woman having the right to exist and make decisions in her own right and that’s exactly what Elvira does. She enjoys her own beauty, but doesn’t view it as her only currency. She wears the clothes she wants to wear without fearing judgement. She determines with whom and when she has sex. She’s realistic about herself and her situation, but believes herself to have intrinsic value. She looks like a vamp, but she doesn’t hide the corny funny side of herself to be more textbook seductive. She sees beyond herself to the value of others. In short, she’s a Vegas showgirl who managed to frame herself as having agency, a complete personality, humor, intellect, skills, and emotion. And that’s exactly what Cassandra Peterson is, too. Is it any wonder a guy like Roger Ebert didn’t get it?
Elvira, of course, knows that they were never going to get it because she’s seen the world she lives in. She says in the film “Tell them, if they ask about me, that I was more than a great set of boobs.” But, because she also has to get the last laugh, she eschews the conventional proof of a woman’s worth and cracks a joke instead, “tell them I was also an incredible pair of legs.”