It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, aka Cassandra Peterson, burst into our living rooms, sporting two of her biggest assets, and single-handedly revitalized the once-tame TV genre of the late-night horror host, bringing a combination of sexuality, humor and no shortage of groan-worthy bad puns. Elvira’s Movie Macabre ran from 1981-84 on Los Angeles’ KHJ (now KCAL-TV) and rapidly established her as a star with national syndication.
Feature films followed: Her own starring vehicle Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was released in 1988, followed by Elvira’s Haunted Hills in 2001. Licensing deals, frequent TV appearances, tie-ins galore, video box sets and other TV programs made Elvira America’s favorite sexy and playful horror vamp. (My favorite arcade game in the ‘80s was the Elvira pinball machine, Scared Stiff.)
Although it’s been a tough gig to keep up over the past decade, given the explosion of the niche-market television landscape and hundreds of channels all competing for attention, Elvira re-launched her original show, Elvira’s Movie Macabre in September of 2010 for syndication in several markets nationwide, and it ran for 20 episodes, through May of ’11. Unlike her previous show from the ‘80s, Elvira chose B-horror films in the public domain due to the prohibitive cost of licensing now, but it’s no less fun – she’s educating a whole new generation on the merits of A Bucket of Blood, Manos: Hands of Fate, Night of the Living Dead and I Eat Your Skin.
If you missed any of the episodes, and likely you did because of the relative obscurity of the show’s airtimes, Elvira is releasing a new line of double-feature DVDs from the show’s re-launch. Each DVD, priced at $14.98, includes two fright-fests digitally remastered for optimal shocks. The first one to hit the street is Night of the Living Dead (1968) & I Eat Your Skin (1964).
I spoke with Cassandra recently from her home in Los Angeles, where we discussed high school, her Fellini encounter, self-actualization and Tina Louise.
David Savage: I discovered something in doing research about you: You and my father went to the same high school.
Cassandra Peterson: No!
DS: William Palmer High in Colorado Springs.
CP: I can’t believe it! What year did he graduate?
DS: I think about 1940.
CP: Thank God. Someone from my high school graduated before me. I meet young people who tell me they graduated from high school in like 1994 and I think…is that even possible?
DS: That might be a good place to start. Your senior year was 1969, correct?
CP: That’s right.
DS: Was your high school just soaked in hallucinogens?
CP: I don’t really know, I wasn’t really there all that much. I was across
the street in the park, soaked in hallucinogens [laughs]. I fancied myself a real hippie, with love-ins, peace marches, and one thing I’m very proud of: I went to California with my parents the summer before my senior year, and I brought back the first pair of bell bottoms that Colorado Springs had ever seen. So I can say I introduced bell-bottoms in Colorado Springs.
DS: Was it true you were a Vegas showgirl?
CP: Yes, absolutely, at the Dunes! What happened was that when I was still about 17 or so, I went to Vegas with my parents and was spotted in the audience by the stage manager of Viva Les Girls show at The Dunes. I had pushed my boobs up to my chin and put on a little wiglet so my hair was all piled up, and I had on false eyelashes, so I probably looked a lot older. We were sitting there and
this woman comes over and says, are you a dancer? I said yes, because I was a dancer and had been dancing in bars since I was 14. So she said, do you want to come backstage and meet the producer? So I did and they offered me a job right on the spot. Literally the day I finished high school, at 4PM, I loaded up my car and drove out there and started working as a showgirl. It was hard, though – I did four shows a day, got home about two in the morning, did laundry. It really wasn’t a glamorous life.
DS: Sounds like it was a real “grind,” pardon the pun.
DS: That was an Elvira-worthy pun.
CP: Yes it was. Look at you, setting up my jokes for me!
DS: I also read somewhere that you were in a Fellini film.
CP: Yes, right after I left Vegas, I moved to France and got a job as a dancer in the Folies Bergere. But I didn’t make it past rehearsals because they were all so rude to me. The girls didn’t like me first because I was an American, and second because I was so much younger than they were, so they treated me horribly and I quit before my first performance. Another girl in the Folies quit along with me and we went to Rome. The first night we were in Rome, we were walking down this street in the oldest part of Rome, and we ran into a movie crew filming a movie right in the street. And believe it or not, a guy comes over to me from the crew that I had known from Las Vegas. He said he was working on the crew for Federico Fellini who was shooting a movie called Roma, and would I like to meet Mr. Fellini! And I absolutely
idolized Fellini so I said of course I would! He takes me over to him and he immediately asked me if I wanted to be in the film.
DS: That’s incredible. First you get discovered in the audience in Vegas and made
a showgirl, then you meet Fellini in Rome and he puts you in his film on the spot.
Each of those easily trumps the famous story about Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore.
CP: I know, they sort of do!
DS: What sort of role did Fellini give you?
CP: I was an extra in a few scenes. In one scene you can see me zip past the camera on the back of a motorcycle, my red hair flying, then in another scene I’m in a brothel, and then the last one is when I’m in a sort of riot throwing things in the street. Fellini was so kind to me. I was one of the only cast members who didn’t speak Italian, and every day he would come over to speak to me. He was a very kind, gentle man.
DS: It sounds like you’ve led a sort of self-actualizing life.
CP: It’s true. Whenever I’ve imagined myself as something, it’s always come true. And I think anyone can do that. My dream as a teenager was to become a showgirl. I saw Viva Las Vegas and just idolized Ann-Margret. I became a showgirl and met Anne-Margret, whom I’m friends with, and I also dated Elvis.
DS: So, let’s talk about Elvira’s Movie Macabre. I take it these are the video component to the re-launch of the series?
CP: Yes, that’s right. The show had 20 episodes on TV in syndication [from September ’10--May ’11] but with these DVDs, there are a six extra episodes, so that’s six extra movies exclusive to these DVDs.
DS: I think it’s great that you’re bringing back that great tradition of the local late-show horror host. Anyone born after, 1979, let’s say, has no idea who or what that bit of pop culture Americana was about.
CP: I know, I think so too. I’m glad I can re-introduce that for a new generation. Although I must say, now we have to use only films in the public domain, which are in such bad shape. There are often entire parts missing, the sound is terrible, and they require a lot of work.
DS: So what do you do with them?
CP: I have to pay for each of them to be entirely re-mastered before they could air on the show. So even though they are free of charge in the public domain, I was spending six, seven-thousand out of my own pocket on each for the remastering.
DS: Wow, that’s a lot of money. But how were you able to buy the rights for the movies you showed on your original program [Movie Macabre] in the early ‘80s?
CP: Well what the deal was, the station that aired my show back then was owned by RKO, and they had a huge, huge library of movies. And not only did they have a library of their own movies, but they owned the rights to other libraries of films because they bought up entire archives from other studios. So I had a treasure trove of films to choose from, free of charge. Those were the good old days.
DS: For the classic grindhouse and B-horror movies that are not in the public domain, are they just too expensive to screen on your program?
CP: Yes, unfortunately. They’re all owned by huge studios like Universal. They never see the light of day anyway, so you’d think they would jump at the chance to have them taken out of the vault. But what they do is charge you for broadcast rights, which is already too expensive, then for DVD rights, then for foreign rights…
DS: So let’s talk about the first double-feature in the DVD series: Night of the Living Dead and I Eat Your Skin. Do you remember where you were when you first saw Night of the Living Dead and did it have a big impact on you?
CP: You know, I have to admit, I don’t really remember it having a big impact on me when I first saw it because I think I was a teenager and I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it. But I remember thinking it was one of the scariest films I had ever seen. Then I saw it again as an adult, and I really appreciated it. I thought it was brilliant. I knew enough about the history of film to really get it. It’s one of the only films that I can watch again and again and never get tired of watching.
DS: And I Eat Your Skin?
CP: It has nothing to do with eating skin or zombies, it’s more like a whole Haitian voodoo thing. Natives walk around with fried eggs over their eyes. I do a whole, hilarious Gilligan’s Island intro to it. That’s hoping people will still know what Gilligan’s Island is!
DS: Speaking of which, I think Elvira might be the perfect melding of Tura Satana from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.
CP: You know, it’s funny. I could really be their love child! Tina Louise was another person I just idolized when I was young. I wanted to be her. And you know what? I grew a mole where Tina Louise has one. In the same exact spot where she has her famous mole. It’s like I willed it to appear.
DS: This feeds into our theme of your self-actualizing force. It’s almost supernatural. Okay, any other films in the series you want to call out?
CP: Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’s probably my favorite of the bunch.
DS: Supposedly one of the worst films ever made. [It’s so bad it makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Citizen Kane.]
CP: And the poor man who played the lead! He wore those strange metal riggings in his pants, and they caused him so much pain that he became a drug addict and committed suicide. It’s just tragic.
DS: Any others?
CP: Scared to Death with Bela Lugosi! It was one of the only color films he made. Although there are only two colors -- green and beige. Then there’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and one of my most beloved films, The Wasp Woman.
DS: She’s got to be an Elvira influence. So who do you think Elvira is, after all?
CP: I told somebody recently: I finally figured out who Elvira is. She’s me when I was thirteen. Kind of silly, cracking awful jokes and just saying anything that comes into my head.
CLICK HERE to order the Night of the Living Dead/I Eat Your Skin double feature discounted from Amazon