EXCL: Searching for the Next Elvira


An interview with the Mistress of the Dark

When a former Vegas showgirl took at shot in the dark in 1981 and auditioned at a Los Angeles television station for the role of a horror host, Cassandra Peterson’s curvaceous counterpart – Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – was born. From her gothic red couch, this porcelain white portrait of sex appeal poured into a thin black dress introduced viewers to a steaming crop of sometimes crap genre fare courtesy of her program “Elvira’s Movie Macabre.” She delivered self-effacing humor with a roll of her heavily mascara’d eyes and a curled lip beneath that tower of raven-black hair and gave adolescent boys a whole new appreciation for horror. Countless appearances, two feature films and twenty-seven years later, Elvira is hanging a “Help Wanted” sign outside of her crypt.

This October, Fox Reality will air “The Search for the Next Elvira”, a three-night event beginning Saturday the 13th (12am EST/9pm Pacific). Similar to the structure of ratings whores “American Idol” and “Survivor,” the program will drag a selected number of female contestants through grueling trials. The victorious vixen goes on to assist Elvira in her macabre duties.

Outside of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, where ShockTillYouDrop.com pops in to check out the auditions today (a Friday the 13th smack-dab in the middle of July), there’s no reprieve from the sun. The massive ocean liner, now a supposedly haunted tourist trap, provides a modicum of shade for the assembled crowd of gals dressed uniformly in black and cooking in the summer heat. Some cling desperately to nearby cool cement walls in the shadows like lizards as if direct contact with UV rays will fry them to a crisp like jailbait Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire. Save for the scant few who have come in remarkably obscure attire – one contestant has appeared in an outfit befitting of a 1950’s housewife – they look cut from the same cloth, impressionable offspring of Elvira’s glory days on television.

But to assimilate her iconic visage was not mandatory as Elvira herself tells us within one of the Queen Mary’s many guest suites branching off from the ship’s Shining-like hallways. “We’re looking for someone who can come closest to approximating Elvira,” she says, sultry Valley girl lilt still present. Her stylist stands within earshot, ready for any beauty adjustments. At her age (58, if you’ve got to know), Peterson is still as sharp and seductive as ever. That’s right, seductive – we show no shame in admitting that. “We wanted them though to come up with their own original look, not come down here and impersonate me – to see what creativity they have, what’s in their head. As time goes by we’ll whittle [the contestants] down to the unlucky thirteen and then the seven and then the unholy three and we’ll get them more and more Elvira-like as [the show] goes along.”

This afternoon the women are being segregated into two groups. At the bow of the mighty Queen are the new arrivals; at the stern contestants are numbered and given one of Elvira’s famous introductions to memorize. Inside, and on a stage before Elvira and her two co-judges, the promising clones will make the speech their own and hopefully exude a memorable camera-friendly personality. “What we’re doing is the search for the next Elvira, which does not mean replacing me,” she hesitates then laughs, “I don’t want to say the old Elvira. Just the original Elvira. It just means we’re adding additional Elviras. And ‘The Search for Additional Elviras’ did not have the same ring to it – know what I’m sayin’?”

We do…and express, like a dedicated boyfriend who’s been told it’s time to move on, that there’ll never be another Elvira like her.

“I took my inspiration from Santa Claus,” she continues. “You see him doing all of these gigs, a thousand more gigs than what I can do. He’s got helpers, so I decided to get Satan’s helpers to go around the country and do some other gigs. People go, Oh, but you’re the only Elvira, but I’ll tell you, the last few years I’ve been doing appearances, you cannot believe people, generally under 30 years old, who say, Are you the real Elvira? And I’m going, Yes, but now I’m going, Hmm, maybe it’s a good thing. You know how you go down to Hollywood Blvd. and you see Batman dressed up taking pictures with people? They don’t care if it’s the real one.” Her big cat eyes widen. “Heck, I may be down there someday.”

When a public cattle call for talent on this level is made in this industry, you never know who will show up on your front step which is why even Elvira expresses some mild fear about the audition process. “I don’t know what to expect today,” her lips frown in dread. “But, there are a couple of attributes we’re looking for in people…a couple of big ones.” Ah, the boob jokes never get old. “Like humor and a love for the horror genre.” Oh, so nobody too chesty then? “Well, they might want to have the cleavage, it hasn’t hurt me any. I like to say I’m not just an incredible set of boobs, but I’m incredible set of legs. It’s not like we’re picking Miss America. You have to have a really crappy sense of humor. A really cheesy sense of humor, sorta like the Three Stooges. And you’ve got to truly love horror and to be able to kiss tarantulas and stuff like that. It’s not a beauty pageant, I’ll leave that to Project Runway.”

Spiders “and other furry critters and reptiles” may play a heavy part in the challenges posed throughout the show’s run. But at the time of this writing, those specifics are still being worked out. “We haven’t quite cemented them all in yet…hey, there’s a challenge! We’re trying to come up with stuff that won’t kill anyone but will be good deciding factors if they can withstand the pressure of the job. There will be specific things like maybe involving a coffin and being buried alive perhaps.”

We pose to her that perhaps this event will help edge the art of “horror hosting” back into the spotlight. After all, hosts beamed into TV sets across the country with their gimmicks and terrible puns slowly fizzled out in the late-’80s/early-’90s. “It’s a sad thing for me. When I was a kid growing up, every town nearly had their own horror host. It was a big deal,” she laments. “I helped a lot of young men through puberty, I think, and girls too – but not through puberty. Horror hosts have sorta gone away, and even I went away, because I couldn’t get the movies anymore, they were all bought up by the big studios. They were expensive. When I was hosting horror movies, they pay you to take the damn things. You’d find one in somebody’s basement and they’d be like, Take it, use it, anything. Then it all got bought up by the studios and it’d go into their libraries and sold as big packages – two horror films, six detective films and a cowboy film. And the people doing horror movies didn’t need those other 28 films.”

Still, if anything, Elvira’s latest endeavor proves her persona is not ready to be buried six feet under. Following our interview we catch up to her in the ship’s ballroom where an audition is underway. To the left of the judge’s table the show’s director sits before a series of monitors with some other unidentified folks who look weary. On stage, a petite and cute little thing struggles through Elvira’s speech and butchers the pronunciation of the word “macabre.” Elvira, flanked by her two judges – male Elvira impersonators, help the poor girl sounding it out for her. Minutes later, the output from the fog machines is too much for the Queen Mary’s smoke alarms to handle, thus setting them off. The auditions are forced to stop.

It’s going to be a long night.

Source: Ryan Rotten Photos by: Paula Burr