Every year around this time, people put out their lists of favorite witchy films that you must rewatch. Tragically, Elvira is almost never mentioned. People will revisit Practical Magic and find uplifting resonances about domestic violence, or they’ll wallow in the glorious '90s nostalgia of The Craft or even the campy virgin-bashing weirdness of Hocus Pocus. But my favorite Halloween witchy wonder movie is Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. The film turns 30 this year and is a more rewarding watch now than it was when it hit theaters.
On the surface, Elvira’s tale is spooky house inheritance, witchcraft, and corrupting the local kids just looks like shlock B-movie tropes microwaved with American cheese on top. There are plenty of boob jokes and sight gags and Elvira herself is a font of silly dirty one-liners that are so old that they scream like Vaudeville’s tortured ghost. However, there is something lasting to the storyline that always keeps me coming back for more.
Elvira moves from her horror movie hostess job to a small town in Massachusetts to receive her inheritance from her great-aunt Morgana. Morgana is classic witchbabe goals: an old painting selfie hangs in her goth drawing room, showing off her red hair and piercing gaze. Her shape-shifting familiar guards the house and her book of magical recipes, which are Elvira’s birthright. The house and this main storyline are prime Halloween spookfest fodder: creepy mansion, evil wizard uncle trying to steal the magical inheritance, and prudish townspeople making things hard on a downtrodden witch.
Elvira brings a shock to this sleepy little hollow by inspiring the teen citizens to be themselves, basically by just existing. Her look and her attitude are so unorthodox as to upset the entire social order of the city. The work that she does by just being herself reminds me of the way icons like David Bowie or Grace Jones weaponized their own image in order to make a statement that could not be denied. Elvira is a such an effective sexy goth that everyone around her is launched into puberty or Satanic ecstasy just by being in her presence. What could be more true to the spirit of Halloween than that?
On top of all this, Elvira is subject to near-constant sexual harassment throughout the film. She’s assaulted by a TV producer in her job, attacked by local ruffians at a bowling alley, molested by a real estate agent and a literal priest sent to give her the last rites before (spoiler alert) she’s scheduled to be burned at the stake. Elvira handles these attacks with good humor and a sense of self-worth that’s impossible to deny. As over-the-top as these depictions are, I found myself cheering a little harder for my favorite witch this year. Elvira is a great example of a character who reinforces the fact that costume is not consent.
She also turns the little town on its head using the repression of sexuality itself as a weapon. One of the best scenes of the film sees Elvira dropping off a magical casserole from her great aunt’s spellbook intended to add a monster to a community potluck. Not being a great cook, Elvira’s substitutions produce a powerful aphrodisiac instead, kicking off an orgy among the town’s most chaste and upstanding adult citizens. That they retaliate by burning her at the stake is hardly unexpected; little towns in Massachusetts have a long history of keeping witchy women in line in much the same way.
The film isn’t perfect. The lone nonwhite character is a you-go-girl hair stylist with a single line of dialogue. The climactic scene where Elvira takes the ultimate revenge (wearing a lot of glitter in Vegas and making money off the control of her own sexuality) is marred by a white-girl rap routine that rivals the “Top That” cringefest from Teen Witch. There’s a gratuitous shaming of a woman who has smaller breasts than our busty protagonist, a scene where teenage boys try to take nude photos of Elvira without her knowledge or consent, and a handful of other not-so-great reminders of how far we’ve come in what we’ll accept in comedy. However, most of these wash out in the end. There are little details (the drag-level makeup on baby Elvira in a basket on the steps of a convent, the architectural flourishes in the obvious witch house, the costuming of the only goth in Massachusetts) that utterly delight me out of noticing most of those less fortunate incidents.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is about a hot witch who utterly owns herself beating the patriarch of her family as he attempts to shame her, rob her, and ultimately kill her so he can claim the power that is rightfully hers. She beats up sexual harassers, jokes her way out of tough situations, defies the morality of a heartless small town, encourages kids to be themselves, drives a cool car, and ultimately gets to do the kind of sexy, shimmery, big-budget burlesque tassle-show that she has always wanted to do in order to express herself. It’s more fun than most of the others that are season faves, and it doesn’t pretend to have a moral about family or togetherness or safety. It’s got the spooks and scares and candy-corny jokes that a great Halloween movie should have.
Don’t consult Rotten Tomatoes. Just see it for yourself. It’s like most of us at 30: imperfect, but still ready to show some friends a good time.