Synopsis: Hollywood would never be the same. When Maila Nurmi took to the TV airwaves in 1954 as the original gothic scream queen Vampira, a national craze was set off. Haughty, domineering, and an instant icon of female power and sexuality, Vampira case her spell over other rebels and rabbler-rousers of the day, including James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley. But the woman behind the facade was both far more intricate and much more fragile than the character that made her famous, and the price of momentary glory and cult superstardom was almost unbearably high.
Vampira and Me is the epic and acclaimed new documentary Variety called “thoroughly engrossing” and which the Austin Chronicle described as “devastating.” Includes rare audio, unseen stills and newly discovered footage, including Maila Nurmi’s Private Home Movies and two newly discovered Kinescopes of Vampira unseen in six decades.
Vampira and Me 8.0
eyelights: its loving tribute to Vampira and Maila Nurmi. its creative construction.
eyesores: its inevitably limited amount of stock footage.
“Vampira embodied feminine strength in the midst of a popular culture that exalted female submission.”
Vampira is one of those pop icons that I’d never really been drawn to. Having seen her chiefly in ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, where she is given very little to do and doesn’t do it especially well, I wasn’t especially interested in exploring any further. I’d seen a few pictures but that was enough for me.
It turns out that there really wasn’t much else to see.
You see, Vampira rose to fame in the ’50s, when shows weren’t recorded to tape and archived, so a mere 2 minutes of footage remain of ‘The Vampira Show’ – and that was shot off of a television set. There are, however, photographs of her promotional appearances and there’s footage of cameos on other shows.
But that’s pretty much it.
In fact, ‘Vampira and Me’ begins with a warning to this effect, telling us just how little is left and how R.H. Greene, the director, used substitutes where necessary. The rest of time, he used a bevy of media inserts from the period, edited together to punctuate the documentary and provide perspective.
The central piece, however, is an interview that Greene did with Maila Nurmi, the woman behind Vampira, for a 2001 documentary called ‘Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies’ way back in 1997. He hadn’t used much of it and was sitting on it, so he decided to dig it up to pay tribute to her.
There’s also a 1966 audio recording that Nurmi made while she was working on an autobiography. It’s incomplete as most of the tapes are missing, but it also provides insight into Nurmi’s past, as she talks about her relationship with her mother (how she simply couldn’t get her approval, amongst other things).
‘Vampira and Me’ feels like a personal film, in that it is narrated by Greene himself and, by the way he talks about her, one immediately gets the impression that Nurmi is his idol. Even his interviews feel personal, like he’s talking with a friend. It’s a very loving approach, though he remains objective throughout.
The picture covers not just Vampira’s career, but also Nurmi’s life, starting with her early film appearances: she explains how she was drawn to Hollywood by Howard Hawks, who signed her but never used her – so she tore up the contract. Referring to her, he purportedly has said “She’s the one that got away”.
After becoming a top 10 pinup for a few years, she created Vampira: Charles Addams had been an influence on her and she went to a ball dressed as Morticia, to get an Addams Family show going, hoping to catch a producer’s eye. She was indeed noticed and she created Vampira for a show that was tailored for her.
‘The Vampira Show’, which she hosted, featured a motion picture and was spruced up by her commentary and skits (which included impersonations). They would usually show what few horror films that they could get, but had to make do with a number of science fiction and thriller films in many instances.
She’s a delight to watch in the little footage that there is. She’s described by one of the documentary’s interviewees as being the opposite of Bettie Page – not a good girl doing bad, but a bad girl having fun. She became extremely popular, consistently making the national press – despite being on just a local show.
Aside for her vampiric make-up and black, form-fitting dress, she was noteworthy for her impossibly thin waist (in 1954, her dimensions were 38-17-36, which is ridiculous!). She says that she had a few tricks up her sleeve, including fasting in the days leading to the show and using papaya powder to thin out.
She started doing cameos on national TV shows, but only as Vampira – she always stayed in character, never appeared as Maila. We are shown rare footage of her appearance on The George Gobel Show – interestingly some of the gags are very similar to Morticia’s future shtick. She was even nominated for an Emmy in 1954.
Then came the rip off, Voluptia, doing the same thing but for sexy films. It lasted only a handful of episodes because it was considered too risqué. Vampira’s novelty soon grew tired: 18 months after her show began, it was in freefall – it was cancelled twice, having been saved once at the last minute.
And that’s what lead to ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, her most famous appearance.
She basically needed the money and took this small gig for that reason alone – the script was so bad that she refused to say any of the dialogue she had been given. In her interview, she talks about working with Ed Wood, her impressions of him, and how he was a nobody then, that no one paid any attention to him.
There were tragedies as well: She became close friends with James Dean and his death came to haunt her later, when people claimed that Vampira’s black magic killed him. They talk at length about the impact Dean’s death had on her. They also talk about her stalkers and of being attacked in her NYC apartment.
Work became rare. They show a small part that she played in ‘The Beat Generation’ looking like herself, but still credited as Vampira (in my estimation, she was even lovelier without the costume). Sadly, by 1962, she was installing linoleum, working for food, and eventually becoming destitute. In later years she was a recluse.
Vampira eventually lived on after the punk and goth cultures took notice and incorporated her iconic figure in their own imagery. There was even a chance at a career comeback for her: ‘Elvira’s Movie Macabre’ was supposed to be a Vampira project, but then the producer went ahead without her and Elvira was born.
Maila Nurmi never got a second chance and she died in obscurity in 2008.
‘Vampira and Me’ is an excellent documentary on Vampira and the person behind the personage. Although it had to make do with very little source material, its creative construction compensates greatly; there is enough other footage and interview material so that we are not left wanting. It’s nothing less than a loving tribute.
I suspect that Maila Nurmi would have been very pleased with it.
Date of viewing: May 15, 2016