When you're born in Kansas and raised in Colorado Springs, there are only two ways you can go: Either assimilate into the Borg Collective or flee to Las Vegas and become a showgirl. Cassandra Peterson chose the latter, and that flight to the city of sin at the wee age of 17 led to a short stint in an Italian rock band, a part in a Fellini film and, eventually, her darkly sexy alter ego Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Those humble Vegas beginnings can still be seen in Elvira's campy, vampy persona. "I can't get rid of it," Peterson admits. But the real secret of her success is the gay community.
"I feel like I was raised by a pack of wild drag queens," says the unapologetic "fag hag." Elvira's wig and wild outfits were very much a result of Peterson's early days performing in a drag show. The way the vixen walks, talks and dresses is all a result of working with gay dancers and actors. It's no surprise, then, that she's got a large gay following. And no doubt they'll be tickled pink to learn she's making a special appearance at the screening of her latest film, Elvira's Haunted Hills, which launches the Houston Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
"It's probably her camp sensibility that gay and lesbian audiences respond to," says festival organizer Ernie Manouse. Peterson has her own theory about the macabre maiden's gay appeal: Elvira is equal parts yin and yang. "She's very sexy and doesn't take no shit from nobody," Peterson says. "She's macho and feminine."
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But Peterson is not the only star making a special appearance at this year's festival. Michael Sarne is scheduled to introduce his cult classic Myra Breckinridge, and Norm Korpi will join fellow Real World alums Heather B and Lars Schlichting to screen their short film The Wedding Video. The festival closes, appropriately, with a sing-along The Wizard of Oz led by Good Witch Glenda.
While not every film in the festival will be a masterpiece, Peterson is a woman who knows how good a bad movie can be. She and her friends used to belong to a group called Le Chien (French for "the dog") that met to watch whatever film got trashed in the reviews that month. The first -- and worst -- find was The Lonely Lady, the Pia Zadora vehicle by which all stinkers are judged, from Showgirls on down.
"I've always enjoyed bad films," Peterson says. Still, some movies are bad bad, not good bad. While the former is simply lame to watch, the latter can give film buffs hours of entertainment as they recall embarrassing moments and recite favorite bits of botched dialogue. Peterson thinks the entertaining dreck is produced by people who are honestly trying to create a decent movie. "Bad films, people just don't care," she says.
Where does her movie fall on this scale? Peterson says Hills is intentionally and entertainingly bad. "I'm trying to make something people will have fun watching," she says. And if they have fun watching because it's terrible, then all is as it should be.