Elvira's World

Cassandra Peterson is pushing 60 and still Mistress of the Dark

Despite the fights and financial failure, Peterson is proud of Mistress—as well she should be: a freaks-liberate-repressed-small-town flick gloriously fueled by Peterson’s feel for the themes of outsider angst and horror-as-escape, it plays today like the apotheosis of the character.

Meanwhile, on Haunted Hills, Peterson “had all the freedom in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money!”

Not a sequel to Mistress of the Dark, but rather an homage to Peterson’s much-loved Corman/Price flicks, Hills shot in Romania in 2000, with Peterson again co-writing and starring and Pierson producing, on a budget of $1 million—a fraction of the cost of Mistress. Peterson and Pierson were all in on this one: They mortgaged their LA home and borrowed money from his parents to help finance the film, managing both the production and the film’s limited theatrical and DVD release themselves. In an interview with Lesbian News in 2002, shortly before the film opened, Peterson admitted Hills represented her and Pierson’s nest egg. “I’m tellin’ ya, if this movie doesn’t go, we’ll be livin’ out of the car,” she said. “Or I’ll have to be Elvira until I’m 90.”

Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon

“Pretty much, it cost me all my money and my marriage,” Peterson says today, with another self-deprecating laugh. “I mean, that alone didn’t cost me my marriage, but it certainly put a serious strain on an already-strained relationship. I did make my money back, but it’s a long, hard, drawn-out process, and I don’t think anybody who hasn’t done it understands what an independent-film producer goes through. It’s insane. I’ll never do that again.”

The split with Pierson, Peterson says, affected her life and career “kind of in a good way. I would never do that kind of relationship again, and I would never suggest to anybody to ever do that.” She laughs. “Because it’s 24 hours a day [of] work! You never have any leisure time together. Even going out on a date night, leaving the kid at home—on the date, all you do is talk about work.

“You know, I think it’s the woman holding up most relationships,” Peterson muses. “When you’re trying to work as hard as, uh, most men do, it gets really hard.”

In full control of the character postdivorce, Peterson was looking to do something to protect and extend Elvira’s legacy. “I had this grand idea that Elvira’s kind of the Santa Claus of Halloween—at the malls, you’d have an Elvira there. Girls would dress as Elvira just like guys dress as Santa Claus, and it’s not the real thing, but they’ll pose for pictures, sign autographs. Of course, I couldn’t go around to every mall, so we’d have to get more Elviras.”

The Search for the Next Elvira premiered on Fox Reality in October 2007. A competition in which Peterson and two male Elvira impersonators (“Manivras”) held American Idol-style auditions (cue montage of 20-something suicide girl-style wannabes struggling to pronounce “macabre”) and put an “Unlucky 13” through the paces of challenges—shilling Elvira-branded products, improvising bawdy double entendre. Viewers voted in the final round and chose April Wahlin, a then-24-year-old from San Diego. Peterson put her to work, with mixed results.

“She was very sweet. I hate to say, it was sad,” Peterson recalls. “We sent her out to some places, like Oklahoma for parades and stuff. It was horrible. People wanted the ‘real’ Elvira. So even though we charged the bargain-basement price for her, they were just not wanting it.”

The reality show still managed to infuse the Elvira franchise with new life—in an unexpected way: It was there that Peterson met Biaselli, who is an integral part of the new Macabre. After the two worked together on a subsequent Halloween special, Biaselli says, “I told her, ‘There’s no reason why you can’t do 13 of these.’ She was, like, ‘13? I’m gonna do 26! Gotta sell it internationally!’”

“We are of one mind,” Biaselli says. “I go to work, I write, I sleep, and on my day off, I go to work with Cassandra. This is my happy time.”

*     *     *

Peterson calls a few days after the shoot. She tells me about the “mutual-admiration club” she has with Jack White, who offered her an instrumental version of the Black Belles’ “What Can I Do?” for Macabre’s theme song. “Like, every friend of mine just pitched in and helped me out with this show because they know that there’s no budget,” she says and laughs.

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