Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Vampira Dies

I give epitaphs, not autographs!"
-Vampira's response to autograph seekers, according to Famous Monsters of Filmland

She is in the film for barely 10 minutes, and never utters a word, but the silent woman in Plan 9 From Outer Space is one of the most memorable images from that most celebrated of crappy movies, and one of the most enduring touch points on the darker side of pop culture—pale, sinister, lips twisted in a snarl, eyebrows arched, torn black dress cinched around an almost non-existent waistline.

She was Vampira, and she worked on Plan 9 for one day, earning $200. Vampira is but one small part of the epic production history of Ed Wood's masterpiece. But Vampira's story began long before her brief encounter with Wood, and extended long afterward.

She was born Maila Nurmi in Petsamo, Finland in 1921. Her family settled in Oregon, where a teenage Maila first hatched her dreams of becoming an actress and headed to Los Angeles, launching a 60-year odyssey on the fringes of Hollywood.

Nurmi, like a thousand other hopefuls, followed a typical route to semi-stardom—from exotic dancing and cheesecake modeling in L.A. (working alongside Mamie Van Doren, Irish McCalla and a young Marilyn Monroe), to stage work in New York, to a stint with director Howard Hawks, who wanted to make her the next Lauren Bacall.

Unlike other nameless B-girls, though, Nurmi did get that big break, at the Bal Caribe masquerade ball in 1954.

Attending with her then-husband, writer and producer Dean Resiner, Nurmi dressed as the female character in Charles Addams' ghoulish New Yorker cartoons (which were later the basis of "The Addams Family"). Dressed in a black wig and torn black dress, she wowed the judges and beat out nearly 2,000 other hopefuls in the costume contest.

Months later, KABC program director Hunt Stromberg Jr., remembering Nurmi from the party, hunted her down and offered her a job hosting late night horror movies on L.A.'s channel 7. Nurmi altered her original costume (she didn't want to rip-off the Addams character on television), her husband came up with a name, and Vampira hit the airwaves at 11 p.m. Saturday nights.

It's important to note here that before Vampira, there was no such thing as a horror movie host (as we know them today) on television. There were precedents on radio, but it would be three more years before Screen Gems would release it's famous "Shock!" package of Universal Studios horror films, launching the careers of hundreds of similar haunted hosts.

Vampira's show, called "Lady of Horrors," paved the way—Vampira would emerge from a mist-filled corridor, shrieking her head off, decked out in a black wig, three-inch fingernails, foot-long cigarette holder and a clingy dress that showed off her impressive physique (38-17-36). During the films she'd drink bubbling cocktails from an antique bar, lounge on a skull-bedecked Victorian couch and search the set for her pet spider, Rollo. Her monologue during the show was a mix of morbid poetry, bad puns and ghoulish double entendre, setting the standard for her myriad successors.

The show was a smash, and Vampira began a media blitz that far exceeded the limited range of her viewing audience. When she wasn't driving around Hollywood in an old Packard or sashaying through town carrying a black parasol, Vampira appeared on national television shows with everyone from Red Skelton to Liberace. Life and Newsweek both did articles on her, and she was nominated as "Most Outstanding Female Personality of 1954" by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

She also made regular appearances in the scandal sheets thanks to her on-again/off-again friendship with James Dean, who had originally sought her out thinking she was a serious student of the occult.

Vampira's television career ended not long after Dean's death in 1955. According to one account, the FCC and the network blackballed her from the airwaves after her on-screen antics got out of hand—the offending comment was something to the effect of "My sister was lynched for raping a snake."

After her one-day engagement with Plan 9 in 1956, Nurmi's next few years were a mix of B movies and bizarre love offerings from fans. She still turned up in the tabloids, sometimes claiming to be in contact with James Dean's ghost, and popped up in a number of films like I Passed for White (1960), The Beat Generation (1959), Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), The Big Operator (1959), Too Much Too Soon (1958), High School Hellcats (1958) and The Magic Sword (1962). She was attacked by a psychotic fan, had her hair burned off in a beauty shop accident, and burned her hands trying to save a kitten from a fire.

Nurmi kept a low profile during most of the 1960s and 1970s, designing clothing and operating a boutique/antique store called Vampira's Attic in Hollywood.

Vampira's spirit, however, was still alive. A number of female horror hosts sprung up in the decades following her cancellation, including Tarantula Ghoul (Portland), Ghoulita (L.A.), Moona Lisa (L.A.), Crematia Mortem (Kansas City), Stella (Philadephia), Mona (Columbus, Ohio), and of course, L.A.'s own Elvira, whom Nurmi would later sue.

Her most lasting influence, though, was probably on underground fashion. Goths and punks up and down the West Coast and beyond piled on the pale grease paint, black hair dye and fishnets, either directly or indirectly influenced by Vampira's fifties fashion statement in Plan 9.

And by the late 1970s, Plan 9 itself had become a phenomenon in its own right. Named the worst movie of all time in Michael and Harry Medved's "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time," published in 1978, Ed Wood's cardboard masterpiece was building a cult following on TV and in revival houses.

Wood died before he could enjoy the belated fruits of his labor, but Nurmi dusted off her fake nails and enjoyed newfound popularity. Her performance in the film inspired at least two songs—"Plan 9, Channel 7" by the Damned and "Vampira" by the Misfits—and Nurmi made promotional appearances with the Misfits in L.A. during their first tour. A few years later, Vampira herself would briefly front a punk band called Satan's Cheerleaders.

She even appeared on screen again, first as herself in James Dean: The First American Teenager (1975), in the short film Bungalow Invader (1981) and in the surreal Population One (1986).

It was during this period in the early 1980s that Los Angeles station KHJ hired her as a consultant to revive the Vampira character with a new actress. Both sides agree that Nurmi spent several months helping with set design and coming up with concepts for the show. Things fell apart, however, when (according to Nurmi) the station surreptitiously selected a new Vampira without her input and forced her out of the project, or (according to the station) Nurmi abruptly dropped out and refused to relinquish rights to the character.

In either case, KHJ proceeded with its new "Movie Macabre" program in 1981, and Elvira (a.k.a. Cassandra Peterson) was born. "Movie Macabre" was eventually syndicated in 70 markets nationwide, and Peterson merchandised the character for all she was worth. Nurmi later filed a $10 million lawsuit against Peterson, but lost and faded back into relative obscurity. Elvira, her glory days well behind her by the early 1990s, continued in the tradition of the semi-famous—popping up at haunted house attractions at Halloween, and appearing at auto shows. Perhaps, in retrospect, Nurmi got the last laugh after all.

Renewed interest in Plan 9 before and after the release of Tim Burton's Ed Wood (in which Lisa Marie portrayed Vampira) brought Nurmi back into the spotlight. In addition to Wood retrospectives and documentaries, Nurmi also appeared (as Vampira) in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). Based on an unproduced Wood script, the film stars Billy Zane, Ron Perlman and Eartha Kitt, and has been seldom seen except by Wood fanatics and, perhaps, rabid Billy Zane fans.

In 1995, Vampira even had her own story committed to film in Death, Sex and Taxes, a documentary by a Finnish filmmaker, paying homage to that country's most underrated export.

Now in her 80s, sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, Nurmi still lives in Hollywood, painting and selling pricey autographed memorabilia online Vampira, of course, lives on in a million little ways—on t-shirts, in sculpture and even in an underground musical—but mostly in late-night screenings of Plan 9, mute and pale and captivating.

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