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 actresses.
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 Recommended.