Sunday, December 4, 2005

Movie Review: "Elvira's Haunted Hills"

Or: "The Hills Are Alive... With The Sound of Torture..."

Nearly twenty years after her film debut, Cassandra Peterson is back as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with a new movie. I had a great time with her first self-titled film, and though "Elvira's Haunted Hills" is entertaining in its own way, it's a very, very different movie... so much so that I'd say it appeals to a different audience altogether.

When I reviewed "Elvira: Mistress of the Dark", I noted that it was a film based on a specific dichotomy: only half of the film takes to horror parody in the Elvira style (ie: using her chest to break open a locked gate while running through a graveyard). The first half was more of an anti-authority/social revolution parable a la "Footloose" or "Breakfast Club", where the oppressive hierarchy is challenged by an individual who dares to be different. That layering adds a lot to the movie: it manages to capture a spark of the late '80s zeitgeist, infusing it with much more meaning than you'd expect to find from a B-movie horror hostess.

"Elvira's Haunted Hills" doesn't bother with that layering. Or any layers at all, really. It's a piss-take at Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman and the Gothic horror genre in general. It's very effective in that respect - you've got the overdone orchestra music, the frail Victorian woman coughing up her lungs, the gaunt and hysterical lord of the haunted manor, ridiculous British accents, thunderstorms, exotic and sexy foreign laborers... hell, Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" is replicated straight out of the original story. As a parody taken to extremes, it's funny. But that can only go so far.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the previous movie played heavily on the contrast between Elvira and the people of Fallwell. But she isn't that different in Carpathia of 1851. Everyone's pale, everyone wears a lot of low-cut black. Instead, she's displaced via anachronisms, making references to Oscars and the Village People... as I said, it's a different kind of humor, and one that's much harder to pull off consistently.

Another reason the movie might fall short of expectations is because it's very scaled-back in comparison to "Mistress of the Dark": smaller budget means smaller cast, more enclosed setting, rudimentary plot lifted directly from any conventional horror movie of the early 20th century. There's virtually no room to maneuver, and it shows: even at the age of fifty, Elvira is still witty and charming, but there's not much for her to do aside from make the obvious snipes at the obvious people. The ensemble cast is great, especially Richard O'Brien (who I still remember as the host of "The Crystal Maze"), but it's not enough.

To sum up, then: good Gothic parody, but you should only watch if it that's exactly what you're looking for - there's not much else to be found.