By Mark Borchardt on 25th June 2015
A carpet of eerie mist pervades a narrow, gothic corridor; a mysterious figure appears in the distance. It soon becomes obvious that this is a voluptuous woman, but something is askew, for it is no ordinary woman, as we realize that her face is stark white, sinister. She saunters up close to the camera, dominates it and then lets out a blood curdling scream.
Television horror hosts have become popular underground icons over the decades as their schlocky intros to grade-Z scare films are comic allegiances to campy nightmares. The most well-known might be “Elvira” – because she’s been our most contemporary incarnation of vampiric vixens – but she certainly wasn’t the first. That distinction belongs to one such tele-vamp known as “Vampira.” And this cheapie-video doc (but with a heart of gold and fascinating insight) “Vampira the Movie,” a 2007 release from director Kevin Sean Michaels, allows us a delicious intimation into her life and career.
Maila “Vampira” Nurmi, was the first “Scream Queen” – literally. With high-key lighting shimmering on her high cheekbones for ghastly effect, and impenetrable, crawling fog from loads of dry ice lapping at her legs, a lasting template was born. And this ghostly milieu was the distinct intro to the “The Vampira Show” which ran for one year starting in 1954 on a local Los Angeles station, KABC, airing on Saturdays at midnight. But in one short year, that part of the story was all over.
This fascinating narrative had real humble beginnings – namely, a log cabin in Lapland. But by the age of two, Nurmi had said goodbye to Finland and found a new home in America. She was always afraid of the outside world and opted to find solace within a rich inner life and would take to such alternate worlds as the fantasies to be found in comic books. Maila didn’t have friends as a child and took up drawing, eventually becoming a decent artist in her own right. Yet, even as an adult, she still felt like she was from another planet and was always far more comfortable onscreen than in the real world – finding a healthy firmament in the collective psyche of viewership.
The show found quick popularity as Vampira was an erotic, catchy draw. Film historian David J. Skal (“The Monster Show”), describes her onscreen persona as a “…strange combination of sex and death.” She appeared on telethons, cut ribbons at store openings, (even mentions parachuting from a helicopter), and as she puts it: “I was everywhere, like horseshit at the turn-of-the-century.”
And she sure wasn’t short on bravado, just three weeks into the brand new show, Nurmi reveals that she had the audacity to call Life Magazine out of the blue to have them come out and photograph her. Bizarrely enough, it paid off when soon after, a photographer did show up and she got in the pages of that venerated publication.
Amazingly, Nurmi was secretly ashamed of her looks – but luckily the viewing audience wasn’t. Incidentally, I caught a glimpse of a newspaper clipping in this film and saw her measurements of 37-19-36: yes, you’ve definitely seen that incredibly thin waist caricatured out and about.
Yet, this wasn’t the whole of the story, for Nurmi’s true desire was not to be a television star. Strangely enough, what she really wanted to be was an evangelist. She just saw this TV gig (at $75 a week which wasn’t too shabby back then) as merely a way to finance that dream. Maila became fixated on the sum of $20,000 – for that was what she felt she needed to preach on a self-sufficient basis. And since the dough earned as a hatcheck girl just wasn’t going to fiscally cut it, it was in television that she found a better means to that end – but as for preaching the Good Word, she never got there.
Maila had based Vampira as a hybrid of Morticia from “The Addams Family” illustrations (before it became a TV show – we’ll get to that) and a character from a bondage magazine – to fashion what she called a “Glamour Ghoul.” Her husband at the time, a screenwriter, came up with the name “Vampira” and later went on to create “Dirty Harry.”
She got pretty popular and at one point she had three movie studios courting her. When Ed Wood Jr. came calling she was less than impressed by the weird guy and thought that he really possessed some nerve expecting that someone like her would appear in one of his cheap, off-the-wall films. She thought that he was a “brazen, foolish idiot.” But that distinct coupling didn’t end there as…
Her life took another turn when “The Addams Family” was headed for a TV screen near you and Vampira’s character cut too close to the bone of Morticia’s and that ended Nurmi’s television career in that role. (“Vampira” was invisibly blacklisted – ironically, Nurmi unsuccessfully tried to sue Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson because she felt her image was too similar – talk about the pot calling the kettle black). Consequently, Maila found herself on unemployment at thirteen dollars a week and living with her mother.
And it was in those lean times that Ed Wood reappeared in her life when one of his colleagues appeared with a stack of 200 one dollar bills (for dramatic effect I’m sure) to take the role that she’s also quite famous for. Living low to the curb now, she took the bait at this very serendipitous time. But she found herself so appalled at the dialogue, finding it so moronic, that she insisted on playing it mute. For the one day shoot at a studio behind a girlie pick-up bar, she rode the bus in full costume. So, yes, that’s her in “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” haunting the cardboard graveyard like only she can. She remembers Wood “Directing his no direction,” giving no other advice other than how to get from point A to B, and that was it. But in later reflection she found herself admiring Wood’s persistence and the miracle of what he managed to get accomplished.
And in a definite departure from the likes of Mr. Wood, she was acquainted with both James Dean and Marlon Brando (who had a crush on her). Now that’s a heck of a swing of the pendulum.
Jerry Only, from the punk band “The Misfits,” recalls that their song “Vampira,” being a tribute to the ghoul queen, had literally lobed their album over the transom of her home in hopes that she would show up at one of their appearances. And much to their delight – she did. He fondly remembers, “She went way above and beyond the call of duty to come out for a bunch of punks…”
The musical score for this documentary is from Ari Lehman, who played the character of “Jason” as a child, rising spookily out of the waters in the original “Friday the 13th.” I actually ran into Ari on one occasion and he handed me his CD. He’s a good musician and a charming guy with positive, productive vibes.
And horror luminaries Lloyd Kaufman, Sid Haig, and Forrest Ackerman (“Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine) help round out the proceedings as well as famed horror host Svengoolie from Chicago and actress Julie Strain.
All-in-all, Maila Nurmi now comes off like an amicable, chatty grandma (I don’t know if she actually has kids) who just so happened to be the founding mother of horror hostesses. She’s a smart, aware, tough cookie, yet is keenly aware of her vulnerabilities. She’s had a full life and by the time that she was 31, she had made it into the venerated book, “Who’s Who in America,” and at the time of the documentary at age 82, Nurmi still finds that, “Life continues to be fascinating.” It sure was back then and I’m glad that she’s still finding it that way now. Scream on…