The Finland-born, Oregon-bred actress Maila Nurmi's resume reads like the stuff of Hollywood legend. A New York showgirl, she was “discovered” in a Mae West revue and put under contract by Howard Hawks, not long after the director turned a fitting model named Betty Perske into Lauren Bacall. (Nurmi destroyed that contract, after arriving in Hollywood and declaring Hawks to be “stupid.”) She dallied, professionally and/or personally, with the likes of Man Ray, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando and Liberace. She starred in her own TV show, featuring a character she created — Vampira — thereby inventing the concept of the late-night horror hostess, later manifested by Cassandra Peterson's Elvira (whom Nurmi unsuccessfully sued for intellectual-property infringement). And yet, when she died in 2008 in poverty and obscurity, Nurmi probably was best known for the role credited to her alter ego in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space — widely considered to be the worst film of all time.
Journalist and filmmaker R.H. Greene first met Nurmi in 1994. They became friends, and he interviewed her several times, including one extensive, on-camera session in 1997, for his documentary Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies. When Nurmi died, Greene told me last month in a conversation at his Valley home, “I was so fucking angry with myself that I never had the courage to risk our friendship by saying, 'I know you want your story told, let me do it.' “
In 2010, Greene produced Vampira and Me, a radio documentary based on his conversations with and remembrances of Nurmi, for KPCC. This week, Vampira and Me — Greene's filmic fleshing out the radio documentary, featuring extremely rare footage of Nurmi as Vampira — premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Vampira was born when Nurmi attended a 1953 masquerade party in costume as Morticia Addams, catching the attention of a producer at an L.A.-area TV station. The core character Nurmi played on KABC's The Vampira Show was Morticia run through a fetish-mag filter — with a big wink. After an extended intro in which Vampira emerged from a cloud of fog to emit a blood-curdling scream, the hostess would present a movie — horror, sometimes, but more often noirs and mysteries, anything the studio could get the rights to show cheaply — and do drily comic bits, sometimes as Vampira, but also as other characters. As Nurmi says in the documentary, “I was a one-woman Saturday Night Live.”
The show was broadcast live, via primitive video technology, at a time when such transmissions were considered disposable; just two minutes of footage of The Vampira Show, shot on film off a TV monitor in 1954, are known to exist today.
The character was an instant pop-cultural sensation, but due to traumatic behind-the-scenes dramas detailed in Vampira and Me, by 1955 the show was off the air. Nurmi never really recovered. For a while she ran a little shop, from which she sold, among other questionable souvenirs, rubbings of celebrity gravestones.
The film sensitively probes Nurmi's darker moments, including her physical assault by a crazed fan in New York, after which she “posed” for a scandal-sheet photographer before leaving the police station — taking the exploitation of her bruised body into her own hands.
Greene devotes a significant chunk of the film to Nurmi's relationship with James Dean — a bond forged between then-upstarts who recognized one another as kindred outsiders, a bond that Dean, before the end of his too-short life, found time to betray by minimizing their relationship in an interview. But Nurmi remained haunted by Dean for decades, long into her own advancing age. “Maila,” Greene says in his film's voiceover, “was often the most revealing about herself when talking about Dean.”
A Vampira cult gathered steam in her later years, as Plan 9 was embraced by some as a cult classic, and Tim Burton cast his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie as Nurmi/Vampira in Ed Wood.
When you think of Vampira, it may be images from either Plan 9 or Ed Wood that pop into your head — the real thing has been scarcely seen since the 1950s. So Vampira and Me functions as an act of historic television preservation, a comprehensive collection of the few fragments of extant moving Vampira imagery, including long-unseen footage of Nurmi in character derived from two extremely rare Kinescopes. One, featuring Nurmi's appearance on game show Place the Face, was stumbled upon on a shelf at the UCLA Film and Television Archive — “the goth equivalent of Rosebud sitting in the basement of Xanadu,” Greene notes. The other Kinescope, featuring Vampira's visit to George Gobel's NBC primetime variety show, was bought by Greene, incredibly, on eBay.
To fill out the dearth of available Vampira footage, Greene uses archival film clips from the movies she presented, as well as clips from ads, industrials and “orphan” films from her era. The result is a fantastic collage of the stew of cultural tropes out of which Vampira rose, particularly in regards to the unreal standards promoted for women. Vampira, of course, was just as unreal an archetype as June Cleaver, but in representing the inverse extreme, her very being was a riposte to the homogenized models of the day.
Greene admiringly refers to his subject's creation as “anti-suburban terrorism,” positioning Vampira as a proto-feminist, anti-patriarchal performance-art work in protest against her times (notably unlike her successor, Elvira, whose cleavage-spilling, cheeky sluttiness was in tune with the late–20th century rise of third-wave feminist self-commodification). In the era of cheerful female submission, Nurmi conjured a sex icon who seduced only to withhold; in one of the brief extant clips of Vampira in character, Nurmi sips from a glass full of dry ice and purrs, “A vampire cocktail. You like it? It hates you.” This from a woman whose body was both a come-on and a warning sign. Her exaggerated hourglass dimensions (cinching her waist to fit into the costume, as detailed in Vampira and Me, involved steam baths, fasting and Nurmi's homemade flesh-reducing treatment) “made it seem,” as Greene says in his voiceover, “like she didn't have a womb.” Rather than affirm the baby boom's fertility-minded ideals, Vampira vivisected them.
It took a couple of generations for the full impact to be felt, but by the 1980s, Vampira's sartorial image was being widely appropriated by goths, and eventually her aura sampled by pretty much everyone else; her detached cool, and her blurring the line between life and performance, made her, Greene notes in the movie, “the birth mother of hipster irony.” After punk bands The Damned and The Misfits recorded songs referencing her creation, Nurmi lent her own voice to a recording by a band called Satan's Cheerleaders — another archival gem that Vampira and Me resurrects.
“Maila didn't even like punk,” Greene says. “But she knew exactly what a scream from the margins was, and how to give it.”
Package edited by Karina Longworth and Veronika Ferdman. See LAFilmFest.com for information on screening times and locations.