Appellate Judge Tom Becker killed a man in Hydra just to watch him fertilize.
"It's a ghoulish goulash spiced to perfection by yours truly."
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)
The House That Screamed (1969, broadcast October 10, 1981)
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?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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