Elvira: Film Preservation or Bust

  Cassandra Peterson (born September 17, 1951 in a presumably haunted Kansas county) is Elvira. Not to state the obvious, but what I found fascinating in my research is that due to her owning and licensing the character of Elvira (since it is legally, well, herself) all of the money made in her appearances, either live or by way of a cardboard cutout, go directly to her rather than being diluted through a network. Her brand exists though a matter of coincidence, hustle, and her own talent as a performer. As the Los Angeles based horror show Fright Night had lost their host six years prior, they decided to freshen up the program by instead bringing in a female lead. The station’s crosshairs had Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, in mind, though the deal fell through when Nurmi refused to sell her likeness to the company. A casting call offered up a young Peterson, who had experience in Las Vegas stage performance and a deep knowledge of the world of on-camera acting due to her studies in Italy, and the rest is history.

  It’s worth noting that the concept of “curating” and hosting viewings of b-grade horror films such as Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) was well known and explored in Elvira’s day (Indeed, so much so that Vampira attempted to sue Peterson and the station for knocking off her brand, but the suit fell through due to the prevalence of hosts at the time. Vampira was partially justified in that she basically began and popularized the entire notion of a horror host, but that’s a discussion for another day). Elvira differentiated herself though in having the appearance not unlike a modern goth teen slamming into an 80’s cheerleader caricature. Her appearance and sex appeal sealed the popularity as well, enduring a legacy that continues well into this day.

She even met Mario at one point.

Elvira basically breathed ghoulish new life into many of these films that would’ve been forgotten otherwise. Film preservation is a topic that has always held increasing relevance in the context of current events (i.e. 1930s Germany having many of its anti-fascist films or any works that contained the slightest of “racy” values destroyed by the Nazi regime. Meaning much of these art pieces that reflected life in the era through a visual motion media are simply lost). Though cheap horror films are often forgotten due to the hollow and minimal effect they had on society at the time (for every Halloween lies fifty incarnations of Frankenstein, each with a progressively diminishing budget), many of them hold importance in either directorial/actor debuts, adapting obscure literature, or by exemplifying certain subcultures around the world that disintegrate without a means to honor them. Elvira would personally hand curate the film of the night, meaning that since her first introduction to horror though House on Haunted Hill, Peterson developed a deep fascination with these films destined to be footnotes in history and hoisted them from the depths of obscurity, one thrust at a time.

Fright Night, the previously mentioned Los Angeles based station that hosted a weekend horror program, began Elvira’s first venture known as Movie Macabre in the spring of 1981. The series kicked off with 1972’s Grave of the Vampire, a paltry 50,000$ budget vampire flick that utilized being filmed in Los Angeles to really capture the natural terror of what lurks in California in the night. The familiarity of the setting and the corny nature of the acting must be what drew in Peterson to begin with, given her valley girl sense of humor and ironic dislike of gritty settings. Additionally, the film itself is taken from a novel written by David Chase, creator of a little underground series known as The Sopranos, who also co-wrote the script. The film in many ways perfectly exemplifies much of what Elvira’s movies of choice would be in the future; a shoestring budget, a small but fiercely dedicated fanbase, and writers who would move past their schlocky, B-movie depths to become well respected in their fields. It’s possible that Elvira’s curating indirectly salvaged many struggling figures from obscurity and vaulted them towards fame and recognition.

To try and sort out the histories of every film Peterson hosted would keep the reader locked into place far beyond the Halloween season, though rest assured many have rich histories that have been preserved and explored. Notable highlights include 1972’s Blacula, an early blaxploitation film that began an advent of horror films rooted in black culture, or 1980’s Gamera: Super Monster, which was another notable entry in the growing kaiju fascination the U.S. still holds to this day. And this is only limited to Movie Macabre’s original five season long run. Beyond that exists a 2010 revival of the titular (no pun intended) series, Hulu’s 13 Nights of Elvira, and most recently Elvira’s 40th Anniversary, Very Scary, Very Special Special on horror streaming service Shudder. It’s a legacy that has endured far into the modern day, and while some may argue Peterson never had a “leading role” (not through a lack of trying, a pilot for a slapstick sitcom was aired on CBS coming in hot after Elvira: Mistress of the Dark that was unfortunately DOA), she has said herself that she is content with hosting these films and has an incredibly fun time just playing the persona.

But what of the films with almost no cult following, no hope of preservation due to a lack of care, and no directors who would go on to direct the next Citizen Kane? These are the films that turn to proverbial reel dust would they not have been given the spotlight though Elvira’s show. Enter movies such as 1966’s The Vampire People, a Filipino film so wrapped and battered in obscurity that it’s Rotten Tomatoes preview only reads “In order to save his girlfriend, a vampire tries to acquire the heart of her twin sister.”, which is so heinously generic that it could be the vague descriptor of any vampire media in the last century. And yet, without being given a chance in the limelight, it may have been lost to history the fact that it was shot in color and in sepia tones, a rarity of films in the era and a directorial decision that deserves to be studied in modern film classes. Or 1974’s Last Bride of Salem, a coven film that barely exists in the YouTube nexus as is (a Letterboxd review lovingly described the transfer “as if it was used as toilet paper”). The film is a worthy glance into the 60-70’s fascination with witch media and it’s resurgence (think Donovan’s Season of the Witch) and without Movie Macabre, may have been lost in some dusty film exec’s attic for all eternity.

This is just sad.

Without a young Cassandra Peterson being terrified of little old House on Haunted Hill, there’s a good chance that films such as these and many others would’ve have been shoved into the old folks’ home of film vaults; forgotten, crusty, and lacking the attention that could hold important lessons to be learned. Her methods and unabashed sex appeal may be off-putting, especially to the puritanical nature of the U.S. that we never quite learned to distance ourselves from, but there is little argument that her hand in film preservation were instrumental in knowing of a large handful of horror media still present today. I stand by the opinion that horror is the easiest genre to make a film for, the absolute hardest to master, and what I now realize is the easiest to forget as well. Elvira’s contribution to the notoriety of many horror films  (even going so far as to create a domino effect on the film industry in general) cannot be understated. As the enduring last words of every hosted film goes

 “unpleasant dreams”. 

If you liked this piece, I cover all sorts of horror related media, from RPGmaker horror titles to Chase horror games like Outlast. I guess those are both gaming. Oops. Luke’s piece on Cats (2020) is pretty scary too. -Vic

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