By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Nurmi might have had a legitimate claim, but the way she handled it — painting herself as a victim of both Hollywood's neglect and the opportunism of a sell-out "slut" and "bitch" — only underscored the difference between Elvira and Vampira. Peterson is nothing but proud of her shameless self-promotion and ancillary market reach — not to mention Elvira's sexual bravado. And I can't imagine that either Elvira nor the actress who plays her would ever let a rival stand in her way, or let themselves assume the role of victim.
"Elvira was never rescued," Peterson says. "She always wanted a guy to rescue her; she's really horny and always after the hunky kind of guys — but she was always the one who had to do it herself. I think it's kind of a good role model for women, you know? And I get letters from girls like crazy. It's all so goofy and silly, but they still like that I don't take any crap from people."
I've never written Elvira a letter, but I have been a lifelong fan. Growing up in L.A. in the '80s, I watched the reruns of Macabre on Sunday afternoons, and idolized the character. I not only wanted to look like her (and starting at age 13, I dyed my hair black and wore my lips red and my dresses black and low-cut accordingly), but, at a very young age, decided a life made up of watching old movies and making dirty jokes seemed like the ideal career path.
I wasn't the only youth whose experience with Elvira was, uh, formative: Over the months that I worked on this story, it seemed that every time I mentioned it to a straight male between the ages of 25 and 45, they smiled and sheepishly admitted the Mistress of the Dark's role in their sexual fantasies of long ago. Early on, her appeal broke through the barriers of geography and subcultural specificity. "So many people tell us, I had two posters in my teenage bedroom," Courtney Smith, one of the new Movie Macabre's publicists, tells me. "Claudia Schiffer on one wall, Elvira on the other."
Peterson consciously plays up the illusion of intimacy with the viewer. At one point on set, she argues with the director's suggestion that she look directly into the camera for a scripted game-show bit. "I don't want to look at the camera, because I always talk to the camera like I'm talking to one person," she says. She points at the camera, snaps her eyes and mouth into a classic Elvira come-on, and purrs, "You and you only."
That Peterson has become the subject of sexual fantasies is a kind of neat revenge for a woman who was once made to feel like a freak. "Pretty people don't have to be funny, you know," she says. "You can go into comedy being really overweight, have bad acne." Or, covered with scar tissue. As a child, Peterson was playing in her family's kitchen and accidentally tipped over a pot of boiling water. She was left with burns covering 35 percent of her body. Much of the skin hidden by the Dress is still scarred. "I had bad scars, and I was made fun of all the time when I was a kid. I used humor as a way of getting around it."
She also sought escape in the very same films she would mockingly present as Elvira. "If I weren't into horror movies, I would never do this show — I have to watch way too many of them. When I was really little, my favorites were all the movies that star Vincent Price, that Roger Corman did. House on Haunted Hill was my No. 1 — I had recurring nightmares for, like, a year. But I loved them. I wanted to go all the time. I was really into Twilight Zone and The Addams Family. Addams Family vs. the Munsters family — it's like the Beatles or Stones, you have to pick one side."
It's no wonder Elvira has become an idol for disenfranchised youth. "People come up to me at conventions and say, 'I was such an outcast, I felt like such a geek, and when I saw you, you made me feel like such a normal person.' It's my favorite thing to hear, because that's how I felt when I was a kid. If Goth would've been around, I would've definitely been Goth. But there wasn't such a thing, so I was just weird."
"The duplicitous doctor is doing something devious." Back on set, Peterson flubs her first few takes, and is flustered. "God, what is wrong with me?" she mutters. "Not a good way to start out here."
But soon she finds her groove, impressively spitting out the script's many tongue twisters. By the second setup, she's essentially directing from within the frame, occasionally consulting Biaselli on line readings. The actual director's field of jurisdiction seems limited to the cameraman and the guy manning the fog machine.
Peterson appears to be thriving in the DIY environment. After nearly 30 years of accepting some degree of compromise — with KHJ, which was simultaneously tight with money and apathetic about expanding the Elvira business; with corporations like Coors, which hired Elvira as its spokeswoman, well aware of her image, only to ask her to cover up her cleavage; with ex-husband/ex-manager Pierson — Peterson seems to get a kick out of her newfound total control.
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