Elvira’s Haunted Hills (2002)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: October 5th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Elvira’s Haunted Hills features two of my very favorite things, and I'm not joking about the title’s double entendre. Get your mind out of the gutter, degenerate! No, I’m referring to The Mistress of the Dark herself and Edgar Allan Poe, whose works are the loose inspiration for Elvira’s second film. Despite arriving 13 years after Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Haunted Hills remarkably feels like it could have been mounted just a few years later because its star didn’t miss a beat. Likewise, it’s even more timeless than its predecessor, vaguely unfolding in the 19th century and feeling like a lost, haywire American International Pictures production, highlighting one of the key reasons Elvira has endured for 40 years: there’s just something altogether timeless about a persona that thrives on playfulness. Elvira rules because she seems risque when her entire act is really just all in good fun, allowing her to hit that sweet, crucial spot that recognizes horror doesn’t always have to be, well, completely horrific. Sometimes, it needs to have a good laugh at its own expense, and Elvira’s Haunted Hills is a loving send-up that recaptures classic genre thrills that stand in dark contrast to its more bleak, violent contemporaries.
Elvira and her maid Zou Zou (Mary Jo Smith) are on their way to becoming can-can revue stars in Paris when they take an unexpected detour in the Carpathian Mountains. At the behest of a friendly doctor (Scott Atkinson), they become guests in the manor of Lord Vladimere Hellsubus (Richard O’Brien), an eccentric recluse who’s been mourning his wife. The Hellsubus estate is not prepared for Elvira’s wacky hijinks, which find her wrecking the place and lusting after a beefcake stable hand (Gabriel Andronache). Likewise, Elvira is blindsided by the revelation that she’s the spitting image of Hellsubus’s dearly departed wife, who has been dead for exactly ten years. Suddenly, this detour doesn’t seem like the stuff of coincidence, especially when the castle’s bowels are stuffed with implements of torture and murder. Will this be Elvira’s final bow or will she bust out and become Europe’s next stage sensation?
There’s no real suspense when it comes to this question, of course, and that’s the point. Like Mistress of the Dark before it, Haunted Hills is a total lark, propelled by its star’s effervescent, irreverent spirit. Its humor is silly and playful, often pushing just close enough to the edge of being truly ribald without tipping over into being utterly crass. Peterson effortlessly slips into her famous persona, providing a magnetic, madcap presence. Just like in Mistress of the Dark, she’s a whirling dervish, live-action Looney Tunes character, causing chaos with that impish glimmer in her eye. Few people have ever had as much fun on-screen as Elvira, and even fewer are as infectious: she just grabs you up in her whirlwind energy, and you can’t help but enjoy the ride.
Of course, it’s even easier to enjoy the ride when you’re being transported back to one of the genre’s golden periods. Haunted Hills might not be the meticulous fetish objects we’ve seen from recent homages, but it captures the spirit of those AIP Poe productions between its lavish production design and Atkinson channeling Vincent Price for his performance as the shifty Dr. Bradley. The entire climax is a delirious ode to Poe’s work as it scrambles together several tales inside of the manor’s dungeon, where those deadly objects await. Of course, none of those movies featured Elvira doing a song and dance routine, so this is part homage, part send-up of that era, and the whole thing feels rather tame and harmless. Where those AIP productions were often remarkably bleak and violent, Haunted Hills never strays from its creator’s brand of playful horror.
And what a stark contrast that was to other genre offerings in 2002, when the rash of grim J-horror remakes and their ilk were arriving just ahead of the wave of extreme horror that would come to define much of the decade. In this respect, Elvira’s Haunted Hills is a true throwback, an attempt to recapture an era that felt long gone by this point. If I’m being honest, it probably explains why I never bothered to check it out back then: at that point, I was entering that insufferable phase where I thought “real horror” was grim and extreme, so something like Elvira must have felt a little too quaint and old fashioned for my tastes. And despite being a fan of Mistress of the Dark, Haunted Hills eluded me for twenty years before I realized the error of my ways. Indeed, it’s a shame that Elvira didn’t do more movies during that time period because this one is a reminder that she’ll always be the queen.
To be fair, Elvira's Haunted Hills remained elusive in part because its two DVD releases couldn’t seem to stay in print. That’s no longer a problem now, though, since Scream Factory has brought it to Blu-ray for the first time with a newly restored 4K transfer and a DTS-MA 5.1 mix. The presentation is quite nice and especially highlights how well-made the film is: despite its direct-to-video origins, this is a lavish production that benefits from the HD upgrade.
Scream Factory has imported over all of the vintage features from previous releases as well, including a commentary with Peterson, Atkinson, Smith, Mary Scheer, and director Sam Irvin. A pair of behind-the-scenes features also make the leap, starting with “The Making of Elvira’s Haunted Hills,” a 22-minute look at the film’s production. It’s largely anecdotal, focusing on how certain scenes were achieved as Peterson, Irvin, and producer Mark Pierson discuss how the film came together. “Transylvania or Bust,” a 28-minute retrospective from 2011, goes a little deeper into the film’s development, which began with major studios rejecting the pitch, inspiring Peterson to invest her own money and produce it independently. The various participants recall their involvement, with many going so far back as to discuss how they were brought onto the production, which shot on location in Romania. Between the two featurettes, fans are offered a remarkably thorough look at a film, even if there is some crossover material between the two. At one point, Irvin even gives a shout out to Olivia de Berardinis, the artist who painted the film’s poster (which can be found on the reverse side of Scream Factory’s newly commissioned cover art).
Other vintage material includes “Elvira in Romania,” which is essentially 45 minutes of Peterson in full Elvira regalia, interacting with local villagers and a news crew. A separate interview with actor Richard O’Brien, who discusses both his role in this film and his other famous works, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A minute of outtakes, a stills gallery, and a pair of trailers are also included. Scream Factory also tapped Peterson to perform a new introduction for the movie, and she’s delightful as ever as she tries to recall just how old Haunted Hills is now. It should also be noted that Scream Factory housed the case in a deluxe slipcover, one that’s made out of sturdier material than their usual fare—it might be a small detail, but it really does give the release a distinguished quality.
The release coincided with the publication of Yours Cruelly, Elvira, a memoir that also celebrated the Mistress of the Dark’s 40th anniversary. I don’t know if Peterson’s ever quite received her just due, despite being a cult and pop culture staple for four decades now, so it was nice that she received such a robust celebration last month between her book, this collector’s edition release, and her Shudder special. It was a long overdue recognition, and it’s especially fitting that Haunted Hills—a movie that’s always felt a little bit like a footnote as Elvira's other movie—was one of the centerpieces.
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