At the height of her fame as horror hostess/spooky sexpot spokeswoman Elvira, Cassandra Peterson made a bold move to expand the brand that began as a kitschy staple of local late-night TV.
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The 1988 feature Elvira, Mistress of the Dark — co-written by and starring Peterson, and funded by NBC as a kind of extended pilot for a prospective sitcom that never came to pass — had the character quitting her job as a local TV hostess and road-tripping to a tiny New England hamlet to collect an inheritance that would allow her to finally leave Hollywood's casting-couch culture behind and launch her own Vegas revue. The plot contrives to keep Elvira stuck in the highly puritanical town (called Falwell, a tweak to Jerry), where she amasses a kind of army of teenagers to help combat a scheming uncle (W. Morgan Shepherd) and the self-appointed chief of moral police, Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg) — who takes one look at Elvira's abundant cleavage and sniffs that the newcomer doesn't "fit in this town. You don't even fit in that dress!" A full-on culture war ensues: Elvira accidentally doses the church picnic with a homemade aphrodisiac, and the townsfolk in turn try to burn her at the stake.
While Mistress' verbal and visual gags are incredibly raunchy — it's impossible to imagine some of these double entendres and set pieces making it into a female-fronted feature today, let alone passing through the MPAA's tire-kicking with a mere PG-13 — at its heart Mistress of the Dark is a damn-near-inspirational fable of DIY individualism trumping conformity. Sunday's program at Cinefamily includes rare video clips and — even rarer — an out-of-character appearance by Peterson herself. —Karina Longworth
ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK | Sun., March 6, 7:30 p.m. | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org