Saturday, October 24, 2015

Deep Cuts #9: Vampira and Me



(Just in time for Halloween, the "Deep Cuts" series highlights horror films I think deserve a little more recognition. Not to say they're obscure by any means-- most are major releases. I just want to give them a little more love is all. Enjoy!)

Index of all "Deep Cuts" entries, updated as they're posted

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Vampira and Me
American, 2012, d. R.H. Greene

If you're anything like me-- and I know I am-- then you're fascinated by the phenomenon of the horror host. And while it turns out that like most people I'd been vaguely aware of Vampira as a tangent, once I read the fairly detailed account of her life (or rather, that of her performer Maila Nurmi) in David J. Skal's The Monster Show, I found her story fascinating and tragic. Seeking out more information, I found R.H. Greene's documentary film "Vampira and Me" streaming on Amazon (the only distribution platform I'm aware of) and dug in.



Greene apparently anchored this film with interview footage of Nurmi from an earlier doc he'd made entitled "Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies". He claims that Nurmi had always wanted to tell her own story and that he was honoring her wishes posthumously by making this film. And while there's no way to know, her openness in the interviews suggests that what he depicts as a close friendship with his subject was in fact quite real.

It turns out that the character of Vampira was indeed originally a knockoff of Charles Adams' character Morticia, then an unnamed 2D character in the "Addams Family" cartoon. Little footage remains of Vampira actually hosting her TV show, but here we can at least catch a glimpse:



Nurmi says her eventual scream was meant as a depiction of orgasm, which she never told anyone but seems plausible in retrospect-- a very "Bride of Frankenstein"-essque subversive strategy, and strong stuff indeed for 1954!

The film goes on to weave together a variety of her life's strands. Nurmi pursued a friendship with James Dean early in his career-- entirely Platonic, by all accounts-- and was blamed by some for his death when a doctored photo of her next to an open grave made its way into the public eye:



Sadly, Nurmi was never able to parlay the Vampira character into a lucrative revenue stream. Her final film role was an appearance in Ed Wood's craptastic "Plan 9 From Outer Space". And just as sadly, this is how most people are aware of her today.



I prefer to remember Vampira as the original horror host, a subversively powerful artifact.



It's widely speculated that the character of Elvira Mistress of the Dark was a knockoff of Vampira (in fact, Nurmi filed a lawsuit over just that). If so, there's a curious derivative throughline from Morticia right through to Elvira-- not a big shock, but it's interesting to see the (alleged) intention behind it all.



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