If you're a child of the 60's or 70's you probably remember the local
TV station's horror host. Many cities had at least one, an actor
who would dress up as a mad scientist or a ghoul and introduce a weekly
SF or horror film while telling corny jokes and running through quick
sketches after the commercial breaks. They were very popular, for
a local show, hosts such as Zacherley and Sir Graves Ghastly became
household names (well, at least among young boys). The very first
horror host was Vampira, a tall, sexy woman patterned after Morticia
from the Addams Family cartoons that appeared in The New Yorker.
Though she only hosted a local TV show in LA for a little more than a
year, Vampira is instantly recognizable, even today. Yet few
people know that her real name was Maila Nurmi or that her rapid rise
and fall took a toll that would last a lifetime. Thankfully that
should change with this documentary, Vampira
and Me, created by a R. H. Greene, a friend of the late
Maila Nurmi was working in a fish cannery in Oregon when she decided
that she was meant for a better fate and headed off to Hollywood in the
late 40's. The attractive young girl had aspirations to be an
actress but found a good amount of work posing for cheese cake
magazines. She met a one-time child actor and writer, Dean
Riesner, and the two soon got married.
Not content being a housewife and spending the rest of her life
cleaning and cooking, Maila had the idea of turning Chas Addam's
popular and decidedly nonconformist comic, The Addams Family, into a TV
show. She didn't get far pitching her idea, so in 1953 she
dressed up as the matriarch of the group while attending a Halloween
party her husband had been invited too. There she was discovered
by a producer at a local station, KABC-TV. He didn't have the
budget to hire actors to portray the entire Addams Family, much less
acquire the rights, so they eventually changed the costume a little
along with the name and Vampira was born.
She'd host a horror movie (or a detective flick after they had run
through all of the creature features that were cheap to rent) every
Saturday night, walking through fog and screaming at the beginning of
every installment, while cracking jokes and being sexy. She was
an instant hit, and a reel KABC made to entice advertisers featured The Vampira Show as their biggest
program. Soon everyone was wondering who Vampira was, and though
it was only seen in the LA area Life magazine did a spread on her and
she had appearances on national TV shows. It all came to an
abrupt end a little over a year later when her show was
cancelled. (The reasons aren't totally clear, but apparently the
station wanted to own Nurmi's creation so they could lease out the name
Vampira to other stations across the country.)
Nurmi lived largely in obscurity soon after that, though she did make
appearances in a couple of films, most notably in Ed Wood's
so-bad-its-good classic Plan 9 from
Outer Space. Before too long the woman who was briefly the
toast of the town was living in poverty.
R. H. Greene met Nurmi while writing for a genre magazine and the two
soon became friends. He arranged for the actress to sit for an
extended interview before her death in 2009 and this documentary is
largely based on that discussion. There are also interviews
(largely audio only) with some of Nurmi's friends, some tantalizing
clips of Vampira on nation TV shows, and the only surviving footage,
about two-minutes worth, of Vampira on her KABC show. Together
with video from 50's shorts, an audio recording that Nurmi made in the
60's when she was starting an autobiography, and a copious amount of
Vampira stills, Greene manages to create an interesting portrait of his
friend, one that's much more interesting than I thought it would be.
The documentary is fairly thorough and there's a lot of
information. It covers her friendship with James Dean and briefly
touchs on her lawsuit against Elvira, but there are some gaps.
Her second and third husbands are not mentioned at all, and several
questions about Vampira go unanswered. (After her show was
cancelled she did have a seven-week run on a competing TV
station. Why was that show cancelled? If KABC did want to
start a Vampira franchise, why didn't they create another horror host
that they would own? How were the ratings of The Vampira Show
when it was canceled? Could it have just run its course?)
Nurmi's story is a melancholy one, with more downs than ups. Near
the end she admits that for 20 years after her show was cancelled she
worked to keep her waist incredibly thin (one of Vamipra's trademarks)
so that she could fit into her costume if the phone ever rang with a
job. It's terribly sad to imagine the woman hoping that she'll
get another offer and knowing it will never come. Greene does a
very good job at telling her tale without making her seem pathetic,
which is how it should be.
I was surprised to discover that this disc offers both a stereo and 5.1
audio mix. While the surround option is a bit of overkill, I
don't think my subwoofer worked much if any, the movie sounds very good
and the interviews are clear.
While some of the vintage footage is a bit worn, it generally looks
very good and the more recent film looks fine. Overall it's a
good looking movie.
This is the one area where the disc falls off a bit. There are
some good extras but with a few additions it could have been
great. On the disc there's a deleted scene where Nurmi relates
what happened to her the day that James Dean died, an interview with
the punk group Satan's Cheerleaders who collaborated with Nurmi on a
couple of songs, and an 8-minute short Magic in the Air from the mid 50's
that introduces people to the new medium of television (Nurmi does not
appear in this.) There's also a short look at Greene transferring
the only surviving copy of a kinescope that features Maila Nurmi
appearing on The George Gobel Show.
The bonuses are rounded out with an extended radio interview with R. H.
Greene about the film, a shorter red carpet interview with the
filmmaker, and a series of lobby card created to promote the movie.
Missing are the rare Vamipra appearances in full that are shown in the
documentary. I assume that it's a rights issue, but I'd be
surprised if KABC ever went to the trouble to obtain a copyright for
the sales reel that featured Vampira. Seeing the short on the episode
of The George Gobel Show
being preserved, but not getting to see Vampira's section in full
(extended clips are used in the feature) was a bit of a let down.
This is an interesting look at the lady who created an iconic character
as well as starting the whole horror hosts concept. Well worth
seeking out. For anyone interested in early TV and especially for
Vampira fans, this comes Highly