A documentary about Maila Nurmi, whose meteoric albeit brief career as the scream-queen Vampira, the goth-clad host of late-night horror movies on local Los Angeles television in mid-1950s, sounds like an invitation to a high-camp frolic and giggle-fest of bad cinema and absurd TV personalities. But film critic and author R.H. Greene’s “Vampira and Me,” which premiered at LAFF, is an altogether different breed of (black) cat.
Greene, left, asserts a strong declaration of Vampira’s importance, not only as an early pioneer of television but of female empowerment and sexuality, rebellion against Eisenhower-era conformity and the gothic style. At first these claims seem like an overreach. But long before the film’s conclusion, Greene has pretty much convinced you that much of this is valid.
The film is built around a solid foundation. Little tangible evidence of Vampira is left. Only one kinescope of her 1954 TV show on KABC and bits and pieces of Nurmi’s appearances in character on other shows exist. But Greene, who befriended the forgotten star in the years before her death in 2008, did conduct extensive on-camera interviews with Nurmi in 1997 for another film Greene made.
These candid interviews with the aging beauty find her a sharp memoirist with keen insight not only into her own dark story but the personalities she came to know in Hollywood ranging from Howard Hawks and James Dean to Ed Wood for whom she worked on “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” alleged to be the worst film ever made.
These interviews are not only the basis for Greene’s movie but she is the only person to appear on camera as all other interviews come in voiceovers. The goal here is to let the lady have her posthumous say. As Greene writes in his productions notes, “This was in part a way to honor Mailaʼs desire to be her own interlocutor — something she attempted to do numerous times in the various and sadly uncompleted attempts she made at writing her memoirs.”
At first blush, the Vampira story is the all-too-common Hollywood tale of stardom achieved and lost in the blink of an eye. Coming to town as a studio contract player with a paycheck but no roles, Nurmi tore up that contract and sought to reinvent herself. She made a little money as a cheesecake model of that era — sexy poses in bathing suits that exploited her hour-glass figure, which nonetheless by today’s standards are downright “wholesome,” as even Nurmi acknowledges.
Then an appearance at a show-business party changed her life forever. She came in her now iconic gothic outfit, modeled very much on Morticia, the female character featured in Charles Addams’ macabre New Yorker cartoons that became known as the Addams Family. A TV producer took one look and brought her aboard to host a late-night show of schlocky horror flicks on Channel 7.
What is remarkable about her rise to fame is that she appeared on a local channel, not a national one. Yet national magazines discovered her and ran photo layouts and stories that captured the public imagination. Greene makes the case that Vampira was one of the misfits of that era — along with the rebels without a cause, Beat Generation poets and early rock ‘n’ rollers.
Soon the line between Vampira and Nurmi became indistinct. She gave interviews in character and the promotional-minded TV station lent her a car to tour the city dressed up as Vampira. It was hard physical work too. Her figure in those days was measured at a nearly impossible 38-17- 36!
How did she maintain a 17-inch waist? Greene asks. She says she literally fasted for two days prior to the live show, took a steam bath, then finally discovered a papaya powder that when applied would dissolve the flesh away. Yikes!
She did receive an Emmy nom at the close of 1954. Then, sadly, everything came to a swift end in contract disputes not only at ABC’s Channel 7 but later at the independent Channel 9. She remained “camera ready” for years but appearances as a nostalgia act grew fewer and she drifted into poverty and then extreme destitution. A revival of Vampira on the Liberace show was over in a flash.
Greene attempts to penetrate the many legends that have sprung up around her supposedly intimate friendship with James Dean, predating his own movie stardom. Clearly, the two were close, at least in Nurmi’s eyes. She was unbelievably hurt by accusations at the time that her “Satanism” was somehow connected to his tragic death in an auto accident in 1955. Clearly she loved him until her dying day.
“Vampira and Me” winds up having much to say about stardom, friendships and betrayals along with delivering a slice of American pop cultural history. Greene has done an extraordinary job of assembling the archival history of not only Vampira but of her era in fragments from old TV shows, schlock movies and commercials. He situates the character in a time and place where such a camp figure could seem new and even to some dangerous or shocking.
I think the movie could use a few trims, however. Toward the end, you get the feeling that Greene just can’t let go of his old friend. He wants to hold on to her long after her story has been very well told.
That the character has lived on for so long is proof of its entertainment viability. It was even exploited by Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira, Mistress of the Dark character, who hosted KHJ-TV’s horror offerings in the ’80s and ’90s. (Nurmi filed a lawsuit against the show but lost and abandoned any appeal due to lack of money.)
With “Vampira and Me,” Greene achieves Nurmi’s never realized dream of relaying not only her story but that of Vampira, a character she and Greene believe is distinctly related to the cultural revolutions brewing in America as far back as the 1950s.
Production companies: Protagonist Productions
Director/screenwriter/producer/editor/narrator: R.H. Greene
Directors of photography: Sean Peacock, Larry Herbst, R.H. Greene
No rating, 103 minutes