Vampira and Judge Gordon Sullivan make a scary couple.
The first goth. The last icon.
Vampira is the original horror hostess. Debuting in April 1954 on a Los Angeles affiliate of ABC and signing off a year later, Vampira is the creation of Maila Nurmi. Each show featured the impossibly small-waisted woman screaming, laughing, and making macabre remarks about a film in between commercial breaks. Though only viewable in Los Angeles, Vampira became a cult figure and then a national icon after a news story broke about her. Despite this initial popularity, Vampira largely disappeared from screens, and actress Nurmi with her. Despite creating an iconic character (the obvious inspiration for Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Nurmi was only in a handful of movies, spending most of her life out of the limelight making money in other ways. Vampira and Me attempts to provide viewers with Nurmi's life story using extensive interviews with the actress herself, alongside vintage advertisements and industrial footage. What emerges is a portrait of a woman driven by her character, and another tragic story of what can happen to stars in Hollywood.
Despite being an iconic character to horror buffs everywhere (even if Elvira is more famous to some), Vampira as a character only existed for about a year on live L.A. television. Since it was broadcast live and never intended for syndication, we only have the few barest scraps of footage of the show itself taken from some kinetoscope reels intended to woo advertisers. Most of the images we have of Vampira are from magazine spreads and her appearance in the costume (but not the character) in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. Vampira was cancelled abruptly when Nurmi refused to hand over her share of the character to parent company ABC so they could take her show national. After that Nurmi largely left the public eye, but was lured back in 1981 by a promise of a revival for her show. The company she was working with, though, hired Cassandra Peterson without Nurmi's input so she walked. The result was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and though Nurmi sued, she lost in court. Nurmi didn't give up her character, though, and would appear in various documentaries and open her own site before her death in 2008.
Vampira and Me tells this story largely through interviews with Nurmi herself. She's a sharp and candid subject, still funny and sly all these years later. To supplement the interview footage, and make up for the fact that we have so little of Vampira's work extant, director/interviewer R.H. Greene offers clips from the archives that help give viewers an idea of the world Vampira was created in. We get vintage advertisements, shorts, and industrial footage to help flesh out the visual iconography that Vampira was plugged into. It also serves to point out how outside the mainstream her all-black ensemble, emphasizing her curves, really is.
The film looks pretty great on DVD. The contemporary interview footage is clean and well lit, and the archival material is of varying quality but well-presented. The film offers both surround and stereo audio. Both keep the voiceover clean and clear, with the surround having a bit more directionality for some of the music cues.
Extras start with a featurette on the restoration of the extant Vampira footage. We also get an interview with one of Nurmi's collaborators from Satan's Cheerleaders, some extra interview footage from Nurmi, and a vintage short on the "magic" of TV. Focusing on the film we get an audio interview with the director and a brief glimpse at the film's red carpet during the premiere in Hollywood. Finally, a gallery of lobby cards is presented as well.
Vampira and Me isn't a perfect documentary. Greene is a bit too reverent of his subject to really ask hard-hitting questions—and I'm not sure that fans who worship her image really desire answer to those questions anyway. The main line of inquiry left underexplored is Nurmi's relationship to Vampira—we never learn why, exactly, she remained so obsessed with the character. I can't totally understand her sticking to her guns and keeping her 51% of the character when ABC came knocking (though it was a few years later, just ask Stan Lee what it's like to not control a piece of the characters you created). Still, Nurmi wasn't a one-trick pony. Her brief appearances in other film show that she's a pretty talented actress who could have had at least an underground career throughout the '50s and '60s. Instead, she install linoleum. It just seems like perhaps there's more going on there than the polite questions of Greene can uncover. Also, he's a bit biased as he became friends with Nurmi late in her life, so his reticence to bring up really painful moments is understandable.
For vintage-crazed fans, Vampira and Me offers a fine overview of the life of one of the more elusive and enigmatic cult actresses of the latter half of the century. The film offers great historical insight, but more importantly we get to see a lot of Vampira herself, Maila Nurmi, who is still sharp and funny all those years after creating her iconic role. The supplements are decent, so this one is worth a rental or purchase to curious fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Epoch
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