During the mid-1950s, actress/model Maila Nurmi enjoyed a degree of celebrity playing Vampira, the ghoulish sexpot that hosted a late-night horror movie show on a Los Angeles television station. Nurmi’s time in the spotlight was relatively brief – despite earning an Emmy nomination (a rarity for a local program in competition against national shows), “The Vampira Show” lasted a little more than a year. Nurmi’s star quickly evaporated and she only scratched together small roles in a few obscure movies before she disappeared from view by the early 1960s.
Nurmi was rediscovered in the late 1970s, initially due to the belated cult appreciation of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” in which she was billed as Vampira. While she achieved late-life fame, fortune eluded her – a costly intellectual property lawsuit against Cassandra Petersen over the copycat Elvira character was dropped due to lack of funds, and problems in covering her living expenses constantly plagued her later years. But appearances at film fan conventions and occasional guest roles in small movies kept her on the radar until her death in 2008.
R.H. Greene’s documentary plumbs Nurmi’s tumultuous and often bizarre career, which included a brief contractual period under Howard Hawks (he never used her in his films) and a period as a blonde pin-up model. In her interview with Greene, Nurmi speaks frankly and sincerely about her friendship with James Dean (which had been the subject of negative Hollywood gossip), and she shows no rancor in discussing the less glamorous aspects of the entertainment industry. The film gingerly touches on the period of Nurmi’s withdrawal from public view, noting there were periods that her impoverishment was so acute that people would anonymously leave parcels of food at her door.
“The Vampira Show” was broadcast live during its 1954-55 run and was not preserved on kinescope; only a brief advertising promotional clip of Nurmi in character has survived. However, this documentary provides a recently unearthed kinescope of Nurmi’s performance as Vampira on George Gobel’s network variety show, as well as a rarely seen Vampira guest shot on a game show. Among the more intriguing display items here are photographs of Nurmi with Bela Lugosi on a Red Skelton show – sadly, that footage is still lost.
Despite the rocky career path she traveled and the bruises she received along the way, Nurmi achieved an immortality of sorts as the goth pioneer that dared to shake up the conservative Eisenhower years. Greene’s documentary offers a fitting tribute to this distinctive iconoclast.