By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
"The bad part is, I don't have the money of a giant studio behind me," Peterson muses. "The good part is, I don't have the money of a studio behind me. When they give you a lot of money, that buys them the right to say what you do and how you do it. You either get the money and you don't have the say-so, or you get no money and you have all the say in the world, but you can't afford to do what you want."
The two Elvira movies, polar opposite experiences, taught her that difference. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was funded by NBC, to be distributed through a company called New World. Peterson wrote the script with John Paragon, a fellow Groundling alum who had been a key writer on Movie Macabre and played Jambi the Genie on Pee-wee's Playhouse (he's currently working with Paul Reubens on the upcoming Pee-wee Broadway show). Team Elvira was hoping the film would function as a back-door pilot, which could lead to an NBC sitcom. "There were a lot of daily fights about, 'Can we do this, can we do that, can we NOT do that?' " Peterson recalls. "We wrote a whole movie with no teenagers in it, and suddenly, NBC comes in and says, 'Well, if you're gonna market this to teenagers, you have to have teenagers in the movie.' I loved doing that movie, but I fought viciously over it." In the midst of filing for bankruptcy, New World dumped the film on just 150 screens in September 1988. Needless to say, the NBC sitcom never materialized.
Despite the fights and financial failure, Peterson is proud of Mistress, as well she should be: A freaks-liberate-repressed-small-town flick gloriously fueled by Peterson's feel for the themes of outsider angst and horror-as-escape, today it plays like the apotheosis of the character. Also, there's an oral-sex gag involving Edie McClurg that's bizarre beyond belief.
Meanwhile, on Haunted Hills, Peterson "had all the freedom in the world. Unfortunately, I didn't have the money!"
Not a sequel to Mistress of the Dark but an homage to the Corman/Price flicks Peterson loves, Hills shot in Romania in 2000, with Peterson again co-writing and starring and Pierson producing, on a budget of $1 million — a fraction of the cost of Mistress. Peterson and Pierson were all in on this one: They mortgaged their L.A. home and borrowed money from his parents to self-finance the film, managing both the production and the film's limited theatrical and DVD releases themselves. In an interview with Lesbian News in 2002, shortly before the film opened, Peterson admitted Hills represented her and Pierson's nest egg. "I'm tellin' ya, if this movie doesn't go, we'll be livin' out of the car," she said. "Or, I'll have to be Elvira until I'm 90."
Today, Peterson says, "Pretty much, it cost me all my money and my marriage," with another self-deprecating laugh. "I mean, that alone didn't cost me my marriage, but it certainly put a serious strain on an already strained relationship. I did make my money back, but it's a long, hard, drawn-out process and I don't think anybody who hasn't done it understands what an independent film producer goes through. It's insane. I'll never do that again."
The split with Pierson, Peterson says, affected her life and career "kind of in a good way. I would never do that kind of relationship again, and I would never suggest to anybody to ever do that," she laughs. "Because it's 24 hours a day [of] work! You never have any leisure time together. Even going out on a date night, leaving the kid at home — on the date, all you do is talk about work.
"You know, I think it's the woman holding up most relationships," Peterson muses. "When you're trying to work as hard as, uh, most men do, it gets really hard."
In full control of the character postdivorce, Peterson was looking to do something to protect and extend Elvira's legacy. "I had this grand idea that Elvira's kind of the Santa Claus of Halloween — at the malls, you'd have an Elvira there. Girls would dress as Elvira just like guys dress as Santa Claus, and it's not the real thing, but they'll pose for pictures, sign autographs. Of course, I couldn't go around to every mall, so we'd have to get more Elviras."
The Search for the Next Elvira premiered on cable's Fox Reality channel in October 2007. A reality competition in which Peterson and two male Elvira impersonators ("Manivras") held American Idol–style auditions (cue montage of 20-something Suicide Girl wannabes struggling to pronounce "macabre"), and put an "Unlucky 13" through their paces on challenges such as shilling Elvira-branded products and improvising bawdy double entendres. Viewers voted in the final round, and chose April Wahlin, a then–24-year-old from San Diego. Peterson put her to work, with mixed results.
"She was very sweet. I hate to say, it was sad," Peterson recalls. "We sent her out to some places, like Oklahoma for parades and stuff. It was horrible. People wanted the 'real' Elvira. So even though we charged the bargain-basement price for her, they were just not wanting it."