Shout! Factory // 1981 // 220 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // September 19th, 2007
"It's a ghoulish goulash spiced to perfection by yours truly."
-- Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
I completely missed the ascent of Elvira. By the time I became aware of the buxom horror hostess born Cassandra Peterson, she had already climbed her personal Mount Everest and was perched upon her peaks. She was making movies, appearances, and nationally broadcast commercials, and was something of a goddess in the soft-core porn world of found-celebrity-pictures-'n'-clips, thanks to a few indiscrete early career choices.
"Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" was born in 1981 when Peterson was chosen as hostess for Movie Macabre, a horror movie program on a local Los Angeles television station. Looking like sexy death warmed over, the wisecracking Valley ghoul caught on, and Elvira became a highly recognized, eh, figure. She reached a pinnacle of sorts in 1988, with a film based on the character called (naturally), Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and was shortly thereafter sued (unsuccessfully) by Maila Nurma, whose Vampira character bore a more-than-passing resemblance to the big E.
More than 25 years later, Elvira's still at it, and Shout! Factory takes us back to her roots with the release of some of her original Movie Macabre programs. Elvira's Movie Macabre: Maneater of Hydra/The House That Screamed features two episodes:
Maneater of Hydra (1967, broadcast November 20, 1983)
A group of tourists visits a creepy baron (Cameron Mitchell, No Down Payment) who grows meat-eating plants. After watching a randy rhododendron chow down on a mouse, they slowly realize that the vermin vittle was merely an appetizer. How do you handle a hungry hydrangea? Feed it some over-emoting stock characters and hope for a drought.
The House That Screamed (1969, broadcast October 10, 1981)
In 19th century France, Mme. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer, The Boys from Brazil) runs a boarding school for young girls of indelicate backgrounds. "Boarding school" is actually a genteel euphemism for this place, which is more like a prison, complete with a cadre of students who are butch disciplinarians, group showers, and lockdown. Also on the premises is Mme. Fourneau's teenage son, Luis (John Moulder Brown, Vampire Circus), who spies on the girls and befriends some of them. When girls start disappearing, Mme. Fourneau believes they have escaped and orders more stringent rules. But even the strongest locks can't deter the killer who is stalking the school.
Hydra is a horror, a badly acted and dubbed Eurohorror that gives us carnivorous trees feasting on unsuspecting tourists. Unfortunately, these tourists are so whiny and clueless that they come off as idiots, so you end up rooting for the trees. The print here is so damaged, it makes Grindhouse Trash Collection look like a Criterion release. Horribly paced, with a soundtrack that would be right at home in a porn film, Maneater of Hydra is a grueling watch.
The House That Screamed, on the other hand, is a borderline great movie and worthy of a much better release. Beautifully shot (near as I could tell from the wretched letterboxed video transfer) and scored (near as I could tell from hiss-pop-screech audio transfer), atmospheric and suspenseful, it's an art film with slasher/exploitation trappings. Lilli Palmer is all straitlaced bravura as the rigid-but-crumbling Mme. Fourneau, and Mary Maude's a leering dose of strychnine as Irene, Fourneau's all-too-knowing disciple. A Spanish production shot in 1969, this admirably sordid tale of corruption, lesbianism, sadism, Fascism, sexual psychosis, torture, repression, and child abuse landed on these shores in 1971 with a PG rating, meaning the MPAA greenlit this for the Saturday matinee crowd. While I'm sure that version had the same careless dub track, I wonder if it had the original, untranslated Spanish credits (La Residencia) we get here.
Elvira pops up during commercial breaks in each movie, cracking wise, laying on the double entendres with both barrels, chatting with her biggest fan ("The Breather"), riffing on the films, and just having a grand old time. She's a welcome distraction during Maneater of Hydra, but less welcome during the superior House That Screamed.
To that end, there is a curious option that allows the viewer to watch the films without Elvira's interludes. But House and Hydra aren't being presented as films, they are being presented as part of the Movie Macabre TV show. The films are formatted for television, the prints haven't been restored in any way, shape, or form, and they retain whatever cuts were made for TV as well as the fade-outs and fade-ups that were added for Elvira's interludes. Having an option to watch these films without Elvira is like having an option to watch House on Hooter Hill without the hooters. Had Shout! Factory made this the option to watch cleaned-up, restored versions of the movies, it would have been great.
Save for the trailers for other Shout! Factory DVDs that begin each disc, there are no extras. There are also no set-up options or scene selections.
If your tastes run more toward the pointed hilarity of MST3K, you'll probably be a bit disappointed with Elvira, who only does her shtick at the beginning, end, and commercial breaks and is, let's face it, a bit hokey. Of course, that hokiness is part of her charm, as it was for Zacherley, Ghoulardi, Wilkins, or any of the great local horror hosts.
TV horror hosts seem to be a dying breed. Home video and cable have all but wiped out the tradition of late-night or Saturday afternoon creature-feature chiller-theater programming. Movie Macabre is a nostalgia item, kinda like the Yule Log, and is best viewed in that context. If you're a fan of either of these movies -- well, of The House That Screamed -- you won't find any respect here. If you're looking to recreate the scary-movies-on-TV experience of your childhood, Elvira's your ticket.
Elvira is probably guilty of crimes this court has not even heard of, but we're strangely moved by her Valley-Girl-gone-Goth simplicity. She's free to strut her way out of here.
Shout! Factory, you've got a nice little gig here with this Elvira thing. Now try to do right by the movies. Maybe you could start with some community service, like giving us an original-language, subtitled, anamorphic version of The House That Screamed?
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 220 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* IMDb for Movie Macabre
* IMDb for The House That Screamed
* IMDb for Maneater of Hydra
* DVD Verdict Review of Mystery Science Theater 3000
* Elvira's Web site