Younger folks may know Elvira as that vampire chick with the cleavage from all those beer commercials, but the character originated on Movie Macabre which premiered on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles in 1981. The show featured Elvira-Mistress of the Dark (a.k.a. Cassandra Peterson) introducing schlocky horror films while sporting a gothic gown with a plunging neckline and an industrial strength push-up bra. Horror movie hosts were once a staple of local television, but In 1982 Elvira became the first nationally syndicated horror host, bringing Movie Macabre to stations all across the U.S.
Shout Factory DVD has recently released six episodes from the series, with all of Elvira's introductions, quips, and corny jokes preserved. The original broadcast versions used edited-for-TV prints of the films, while the DVD versions retain all the gore and nudity that B-movie hounds demand. This is interesting, because Elvira often uses clips from the films while doing her schtick, and these clips are drawn from the broadcast versions, allowing viewers to compare and contrast the two different prints. The host segments look quite good for two-decade old video tape, while the quality of the film prints varies widely. Personally, I like the fact that the scratches and bad splices have been preserved. Many films deserve a pristine digital transfer; Doomsday Machine is not one of them. I think keeping the imperfections of these old prints helps seal in the schlocky goodness. The host segments are full of campy fun, but, as in the case of The Devil's Wedding Night, can be a bit long-winded. While the series sports no extras, it does allow the viewer to choose between watching the entire episode with Elvira's intros, or to watch just the film itself. As for the movies:
Doomsday Machine (1972)
My God, where to begin with this one? Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed Doomsday Machine, but this is clearly a film for fans of the "so bad it's good" school of film making, and it's not just bad; it's astonishingly bad. China has developed a device that, if detonated, will destroy the Earth itself. In response, Project Astra -- the first manned expedition to Venus -- has stepped up its time table, and just in case the world is destroyed while they're gone, three of the seven men on the crew have been replaced with women, ensuring that the human race will live on. The movie plays like a space exploration film from the 50s with all the requisite stereotypes: square-jawed hero, down-to-earth comic relief, elder statesman and women who, despite being literal rocket scientists, always let the men drive.
The film began shooting in 1967, but production was halted before completion and the footage was shelved until the early 70s. New footage was eventually shot, but none of the original actors were used, leading to a hilariously disjointed narrative. During a scene early in the film, actors are sporting hair and clothing styles that just don't jive with the rest of the picture. Near the climax, two characters are suddenly replaced by different actors wearing completely different space suits (this is supposed to be OK because we never seen their faces). Special effects shots have been plundered from other films, so the spaceship looks completely different from one shot to the next, and one scene of planet-wide destruction is clearly culled from a Japanese monster movie. The zero-gravity scenes, which were part of the 1967 footage, feature actors hanging from wires so visible you will swear they polished them. Watch for performances by Grant Williams of The Incredible Shrinking Man, 70s game show regular Bobby Van, M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell, and Casey Kasem as the voice of Mission Control.
Legacy of Blood (1971)
Now here's a plot that's been around the block so many times that its sneaker treads are worn flat. Christopher Dean (John Carradine), a miserable old man with nothing but hate in his heart and piles of money in the bank, has shuffled off this mortal coil. Dean divides his estate between his four adult progeny and his three servants, with the provision that should any of them die, their share will be divided among the survivors, and in order to receive their inheritance they must all live in the family estate for a week. Things pick up when the local sheriff's head is found in the refrigerator. The phones are out, the cars have been tampered with and there's a murderer loose in the estate; let the games begin. There's plenty of soap opera style intrigue as in-law lusts for in-law and, creepily enough, brother lusts for sister.
This film reminded me of the similar but far sleazier and more entertaining Andy Milligan film, The Ghastly Ones. Legacy of Blood has its moments, but several long stretches in which the actors chew the scenery like it was bubble gum make it a chore to sit through. You can see from the host segments that the print used for the TV broadcast, though cropped more tightly, was much brighter and more watchable than the murky one used for the DVD, which presumably preserves a few bits of gore that were cut for television. Win some, lose some I guess.
The Devil's Wedding Night (1973)
The gothic vampire movies typified by Hammer Films were on the downslide by the 70s, and flicks like this Italian number increased the amount of gore and nudity to boost commercial appeal. Mark Damon, who had starred in the Roger Corman classic Fall of the House of Usher, plays identical twins Karl and Franz Schiller. The more studious Karl has discovered that the Ring of the Nibelungen -- a trinket that will grant the user power over all mankind if he renounces love -- is located in the family estate of a certain renowned Transylvanian bloodsucker. Franz, the gambling lothario of the pair, sees the ring for its financial worth and is soon on his way to Castle Dracula. Karl follows, but not before his brother is fanged by the Count's wife, who is seeking a new human vessel for the undead soul of Dracula. Highlights include a large scale virgin sacrifice and a scene in which Countess Dracula turns into a giant bat during sex (though not very convincingly). The Countess is played by Rosalba Neri (billed here as Sara Bay), the star of many European B-flicks, of which Lady Frankenstein is a personal favorite. The costumes and sets aren't bad, and Neri has an undeniably slithery charm, but the film suffers from poor pacing and a plot that adds little to a sub-genre that was on its last legs when this was made. And while a modestly worn print is fine, this baby looks like someone rubbed steel wool on the film. If you want to see how an Italian vampire film should be done, rent Mario Bava's Black Sunday instead.
Keep an eye on this blog for Part 2 of our coverage of the DVD premiere of Elvira's Movie Macabre.