Despite a regrettable dearth of visual material of Maila Nurmi in her signature role as early TV horror icon Vampira, R.H. Greene’s docu succeeds admirably in transposing his 2010 radio documentary “Vampira and Me” to the screen, thanks to the charismatic oncamera presence of a 74-year-old Nurmi in an extended 1997 interview. Displaying the same sardonic wit that catapulted a local latenight schlock-movie hostess to instant national fame, Nurmi recounts the sad saga of her and Vampira’s long fall from grace. This thoroughly engrossing pic could support niche theatrical play, but the tube seems its most fitting final destination.
Discovered in a Gotham revue headlining Mae West, then brought to Hollywood (where she allegedly tore up a contract with Howard Hawks, judging the helmer “stupid”), Nurmi was rediscovered dressed as Morticia Addams at a party in 1954, and signed by KABC to host a cheapo latenight horror-movie rerun show. There she slinked, her black-garbed figure cinched at an impossible 17-inch waist (she describes fasting and using papaya powder to literally eat away her flesh), exuding dangerous sexuality and languidly addressing viewers with outrageous comments before and after commercial breaks throughout the broadcast.
Greene’s judicious choices of contemporaneous industrial, TV and movie imagery reflect the times less than their absurdities, which probably inspired Vampira’s ironic persona. The pic highlights the only extant “Vampira” footage, a two-minute excerpt from a single episode, and stresses Vampira’s groundbreaking status as a strong female TV presence. But when she picks up her cocktail, horrifically suggesting it could use an eyeball garnish, she also clearly registers as one of the medium’s pioneering farceurs. Greene also includes a recently uncovered kinescope of a skit from George Gobel’s variety show, with Gobel playing a terrified straight arrow to Vampira’s aggressively macabre sexpot.
Newspaper articles and magazine spreads attest to Vampira’s smashing overnight success, garnering the horror maven national notice, even though her show only aired in Los Angeles. But her success paradoxically spelled her failure. In contrast with the rise-and-fall trajectories of most biopics, it was not madness, sex or drugs but character rights that sent Vampira spiraling into oblivion. When ABC sought to go national with her show, they demanded full ownership of the character, a 51% share of which Nurmi still retained. She refused to budge, keeping herself “camera-ready” for years afterward, but nobody came calling.
Nurmi’s nifty turn as a poetry-declaiming blond bohemian, cuddling a large white rat in the Albert Zugsmith-produced “The Beatnik Generation” (a clip readily available on YouTube), certifies that no lack of talent or personality held her back from further thesping acclaim. Rather, her obsessive attachment to her creation may have short-circuited her career. Today, ironically, she is best known for her zombie-like Vampira resurrection in a film often considered the worst ever made: Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”