When Elvira’s Movie Macabre debuted in September of 1981 on a Los Angeles TV station, it’s pretty safe to say nobody involved had any idea it and its goth-girl star would became a midnight movie phenomenon. Cassandra Peterson’s emcee character hasn’t been continuously starring in stuff in the intervening 40 years, but any fan of horror movies knows her.
Originally intended to be a new Vampira, Peterson’s character lost the permission to use the name at the last second, and “Elvira” was born instead. When you consider that, and consider that Maila Nurmi’s Vampira character’s look was inspired in part by Morticia Addams, it becomes easy to draw a line through the history of goth girl camp. Elvira took up the mantle of a long tradition and brought it into the ’80s, with a heaping helping of boob jokes.
Coinciding with the release of her memoir, Yours Cruelly, Elvira—in which Peterson has revealed she’s been in a same-sex relationship for the past 20 years (to the giddy delight of much of the internet)—Shudder celebrated Elvira’s 40th anniversary on Saturday with Elvira’s 40th Anniversary, Very Scary, Very Special Special, streamable after the fact on the Shudder app for those who couldn’t stay up late. Elvira emcees the event herself, with humor and production values that would not be out of place on any of the Movie Macabre episodes or specials she’s done over the years. For those looking to get a few vaccinated friends together for a curated horror movie night that doesn’t take itself seriously at all, it’s a good time with a solid selection of horror movies, and also, you know, Elvira’s movie.
The Mistress of the Dark, I’m happy to say, is still up to the task. Peterson isn’t afraid to make light of her age (at one point joking that her audience is “either embryos who don’t know anything or senior citizens who can’t remember anything!”) and delivers trivia about the movies or occasionally inserts herself into them with all the hallmarks of the persona she’s created: The camera cuts to Elvira during an interminable shot of Vincent Price delivering exposition while serving wine to every cast member as she pours herself an entire bottle. Elisha Cook gets heckled when he shows up in more than one movie.
The movies themselves kick off the only way a celebration of Elvira should, with Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988). The movie follows the star as she quits her gig at a local TV station and plots to hit the big time in Vegas. The death of a wealthy relative leads her to a slight detour in the town of Fallwell, and the name should tell you what kind of folks Elvira is dealing with there. She becomes embroiled in her evil uncle’s plot to lay hands on her dead relatives’ book of magic.
The plot is way less important than the movie just letting Peterson do her thing, freaking out the squares of a conservative town and wrapping every male citizen who has undergone puberty around her little finger. (“Nice tits,” a completely straight-laced old man deadpans after she exits one scene.) Lots of characters can seem one-note when you take them out of a role like host and make them the protagonist. The movie knows how to use Elvira, and knows what she represents.
The marathon continues with House on Haunted Hill (1959), a classic Vincent Price movie and a great haunted house/cozy entry. Price, a venal old millionaire, invites an eclectic cast of people to a mansion with a bloody history, luring them with the promise of $10,000 if they successfully stay the night without losing their lives or their nerve. It doesn’t take long before the guests start seeing and hearing things, and wondering whether they’re truly supernatural or another of Price’s pranks. Featuring exterior shots of the Ennis House, a Frank Lloyd Wright home in East Hollywood, it’s solid classic horror.
The back half of the marathon starts out strong with City of the Dead (1960), a good cult-conspiracy movie starring Christopher Lee. We open on an old-fashioned witch burning in 17th century Massachusetts. Three centuries later, Lee is a college professor teaching the not-at-all-suspicious subject of the history of witchcraft in New England. His student Nan (Venetia Stevenson) goes to the town where the film opens for research purposes and discovers a creepy, cursed little hamlet that doesn’t appear to have changed much since the 1690s. When she goes missing, a cast of boring white college kids goes in search of her. That they’re any match for Christopher Lee is laughable, but in a fun way.
The marathon unfortunately loses a bit of steam with its last entry, Messiah of Evil (1973), and Elvira seems to know it, calling out some of its B-movie weaknesses going in. A young woman (Marianna Hill) goes to a seaside town in search of her missing father, falling in with a pack of weirdos who amazingly are not the ones trying to kill or ensorcell her. That job belongs to the pack of zombies who pick them off one by one. It’s slow, shambolic and kind of difficult to follow at times—not really a way to end strong at 1:30 in the morning, though it is notable for being a paranoid, psychological take on the zombie movie.
On balance, the four movies provide a pretty good amount of variety while also keeping Elvira the star of the show. Whether you’re an old friend of hers or have yet to meet her, it’s a great opportunity to spend some time with her and see some decent horror.
Those who missed Saturday’s marathon can stream it on Shudder and AMC+ beginning Sept. 27.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.