Elvira’s Haunted Hills, released 13 years after its predecessor, is a parody of a certain type of horror film, a send-up of gothic conventions made famous by the likes of Roger Corman and Vincent Price. As such, the film is littered with references and sight gags – alluding not only to films like House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum, but also to more modern films like Rocky Horror and The Shining. The result is that the film only works if the audience is familiar with these films, and that the jokes often fall flat without some kind of existing knowledge of the genre. All the tropes are utilised here – the secret passageway that leads to the dungeon; the house that slowly falls to ruin; the horse-drawn carriage traversing the mountains – but an awareness of how these tropes are subverted makes the film much easier to appreciate.
Travelling to Paris with her maidservant in order to perform a dance revue (the aptly titled “Yes, I Can-Can!”), Elvira finds herself at Castle Hellsubus, a ruined chateau in the Carpathian Mountains. There she meets the residents of the castle, including the mysterious Lord Vladimere (Richard O’Brien) and the black-clad Lady Ema (Mary Scheer). After discovering an uncanny likeness to the deceased chatelaine Lady Elura Hellsubus, Elvira soon realises that the inhabitants of the castle may not be exactly what they seem, and that she must uncover the secrets of Elura’s death before being taken to the dungeon herself.
The big difference between Elvira’s Haunted Hills and Mistress of the Dark is that Elvira just isn’t as likeable as she was in the first film. Instead of being portrayed as the dizzy, fun-loving naïf that she was in Mistress of the Dark, Elvira is now the bored, eye-rolling celebrity, abusing her servant Zou Zou and making fun of those around her. Her jokes and one-liners are still wickedly suggestive, but it’s ironic that she often acts more like the people she fought to defeat in Mistress of the Dark. Similarly, the self-reflexive elements of the film (“That’s incredible that we can afford such groovy effects!”) undermine some of the movie’s genuinely funny moments. But this is really a small complaint. The centrepiece of the film – her performance of an original song, ‘Le Music Hall’ – shows exactly why Elvira has such a lasting appeal, and much of the script is sickeningly clever and subversive.
As expected, the way gender stereotypes are deposed is one of the more interesting facets of the film, particularly as the gothic conventions that Haunted Hills spoofs are often rooted in misogyny. Nineteenth century gothic literature is full of weak, sickly women, all of whom exist in order to allow the men to save the day. The reverse is true in Elvira’s Haunted Hills, in which the women not only refuse to let the men be heroes but actually expose them for what they are. Even Lady Roxanna (Heather Hopper), described as the poster child for catalepsy, refuses to be defined as such, using her last reserves of strength to attack Lord Vladimere, allowing Elvira to escape. The male characters here are presented as slimy and duplicitous, and each of them meet a sticky end by the end of the film. The one exception to this is Adrian the ‘stable stud’, who, in spite of his impressive physique, would rather spend his time reading books and polishing silverware. Adrian, Elvira’s love interest in the film, occupies a traditional female role within the conventional gothic structure – he looks good and is sweet-natured, but ultimately, he relies on the hero (Elvira) to save the day.
Elvira’s Haunted Hills is a fun horror comedy that will mainly appeal to fans of the gothic horrors of the 1950s and 60s. While not as irreverently charming as its predecessor, the film has more than enough to enjoy, particularly if the viewer has a basic knowledge of the kinds of stories that the movie parodies. The costumes, set and score – which are impressively done on such a small budget – lampoon these films immodestly, filtering these conventional horror tropes through a comedic, modern lens. It’s really a shame that Peterson has no plans to make another Elvira film, as the character’s mix of shameless sexuality and wit make her a perfect remedy for the inherent misogyny of many horror films today. Elvira may not be the hero we need, but she’s certainly the hero we all want.
Words: Max Deacon @_Max_Deacon