In her seminal essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag details the defining attributes of that wonderful sensibility we call ‘camp.’ It is difficult to pin down an exact definition of what ‘camp’ is—in fact, the ambiguity and fluidity of ‘camp’ is one of its defining features—however, Sontag indicates that it is more than anything a paradigm of looking at certain cultural artifacts. Her main thesis on camp is summed in this phrase: “It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” If any character in contemporary American culture was a walking example of ‘camp,’ it is that queen of the B-movie: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Elvira is best known for two things: Her breasts and hosting a show where she would screen horrible movies and make fun of them. She was mostly known for the former. In 1988, Elvira got her chance to move from her red couch to the big screen in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The film is a pretty standard affair in terms of plot, basically misfit moves to a small conservative town, shocks the locals, uncovers something horrible, saves the day, and in the end is beloved by the townsfolk who earlier had shunned her. The film begins with Elvira hosting her show in Los Angeles. She has a run in with her new boss, and after he sexually harasses her she quits to try and make it on her own in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, to go to Las Vegas, she will need to pony up $50k. Luckily, a mysterious aunt dies and promises Elvira an inheritance if she’ll accept it in Falwell, Mass. She goes to the town where all she gets is a house, a dog, and a book of spells, because it turns out that Elvira comes from a family of witches. Her evil uncle wants the book to rule the world, and the rest of the movie is Elvira stopping her uncle and shocking the small town in the process. And of course, there is the prerequisite hunky love interest. What the movie lacks in plot, it makes up with witty one-liners. The fast talking Elvira keeps the entire movie at a face pace. The movie is cheesy, the acting, the jokes, and the special effects (though it’s hard for me to tell if the effects are cheesy or not, this was the 80’s after all).
In her essay, Sontag insists that unintentional camp is the best form of camp, the most authentic and the most amusing:
18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.
19. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.
Now, one can argue that this distinction has since been made moot by the existence of the article. By making ‘camp’ a part of mainstream cultural knowledge, it makes it harder to distinguish what is ‘true’ camp, or what is merely ‘camping.’ The best example of this is the oeuvre of John Waters. Obviously Waters is a fan of camp, but at the same time, it would be hard to argue that he isn’t at least partially earnest. The line between ‘naïve’ camp and ‘knowing’ camp is blurred.
It’s the blurring of this distinction that makes Elvira such an amusing film. The paradox of Sontag’s assertions is that camp is comprised of artificiality but can also be natural, and, much like I was wondering whether or not Elvira’s breasts were genuine, throughout the film, I kept wondering: “Is this acting an act, or is Cassandra Peterson [Elvira’s actress] really that bad of an actor?” Take for examples the characters in the movie; they are extreme caricatures of the archetypes they represent. The townspeople of Falwell are all extremely prudish and disapproving, that is until they are affected by one of Elvira’s spells that cause them to explode in an orgy at a picnic celebrating morals. While under Elvira’s spell, the most prudish of citizens, the campily named Prudence Chastity, declares “is this face free?” before squatting over on of her male friend’s face.
Peterson’s acting as Elvira is equally over the top, she squeals and wails consistently throughout the movie. In a scene where she fantasizes about the inheritance she will receive the scene begins with her hyperbolically crying as the will is read. When it comes to what Elvira will receive, the somber lawyer rips off his dull suit to reveal the loud checked suits of the game show announcer and the background comes apart to reveal a stage filled with fabulous prizes and Elvira screams in delight.
Peterson won a Razzie for Worst Actress for Elvira, an award that I hardly thinks she deserves. On the surface, the acting is horrible, true, but Elvira is a star who made her living making fun of “so bad it’s good” movies, so shouldn’t her movie be so bad its good? When Elvira hosts a live version of her show in the local movie theater, they screen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a spoof of B-movies. So in essence you have a spoof B-movie spoofing a spoof of a B-movie. Elvira’s infamous breasts are almost as much of a character in the movie as Elvira is, hypnotizing a slew of young boys in the town. In one scene, Elvira uses her breasts to break through bars that are holding her captive, an exaggerated example of the power that she contains in her bra. There is something natural in the artifice in the film, even though it is obviously affected. I think that the movie is summed up best by the realization that Elvira, who made a career dressing like a witchy enchantress, was indeed a witch. That what was an exaggerated and artificial exterior is indeed what lay beneath the surface, and honestly, I can’t think of anything campier than that.
Selections from “Notes on Camp” were obtained here. I highly recommend reading the essay, its not too long or difficult.
By Theo Estes 3/06/11