|A scene from Vampira and Me.|
By Ed Rampell
I was hesitant to watch this documentary because it smacked of a personal obsession, and unless one shares that fixation, 106 minutes-worth of obsessive compulsive filmmaking can range from sheer boredom to torture. In addition, the word “me” in the title of any film is a red alert signal for self indulgence. Although Vampira and Me by H.R. Greene -- the documentary's eponymous “me” -- is guilty to some extent of committing both cinema sins, his nonfiction look at a 1950s pop culture icon is nonetheless a creatively rendered, absorbing exploration of this phenomenon, and to a lesser extent, the director’s relationship to his subject.
Onetime “cheesecake” model Maila Syrjaniemi Nurmi attained a measure of fame in the mid-1950s with two short-lived local TV programs hosted by her “glamour ghoul” alter ego, the wickedly witty Vampira, who introduced then commented upon (following commercials) horror, science fiction and crime movies. The busty, pinch-waisted, chalk faced, black clad Vampira was noted for her macabre sense of deadpan humor, campiness, arch-sexiness and piercing screams. After her shrieks Vampira quipped how “relaxed” she then felt -- an obvious double entendre for orgasm, which Greene does not comment upon.
Maila went on to appear in sketches on a number of TV sitcoms opposite Red Skelton, George Gobel, etc., and to appear in a number of minor movies. Most notably, in Ed Wood’s 1959 Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Maila played a non-Vampira-ish beatnik poetess in 1959’s The Beat Generation and made numerous personal appearances, largely around L.A. at car dealerships and the like, in character. But after her two series were unceremoniously cancelled, like a vampire in broad daylight, Vampira vanished mysteriously, only occasionally reappearing here and there until her 2008 death. She was undone by, among other things, bad decisions, imitations that weren’t the sincerest forms of flattery (allegedly including that other horror flick hostess, the heaving, heavily derivative Elvira) and her own inner demons.
An expert in all things Vampira, it’s odd that in his overly long doc with its never ending credit sequence (like Vampira, it’s among the undead), Greene somehow never gets around to mentioning some of the basics about the film’s, you know, subject. Although she’s referred to as “Scandinavian,” I don’t remember the doc (narrated, of course, by you guessed it, Greene -- who else?) ever mentioning that Maila was born in Finland in 1922. Nor that her father, who goes completely unremarked upon, was an itinerant writer on an anti-alcohol, pro-temperance crusade. How curious to omit such fundamental facts in an overly long, overwrought biopic.
This highly cinematic documentary expands the range of conventional talking head films, creatively opening the screen up with heaps of film clips. This is a wise as well as imaginative decision, since the elderly Maila with her missing bottom teeth is not the pretty sight she was back in her heyday. Greene’s head scratching use of film footage, however, sometimes goes very far afield and seems only tangentially tied to the doc’s primary subject.
Was Vampira, as the obsessed Greene argues, an overlooked yet pivotal cultural figure who commented on the straight-laced fifties, close confidante of James Dean and goddess of the Goths, who put the cool into ghouls? Or was she a has-been, a minor blip on the pop culture screen of minor note? Watch Vampira and Me to decide for yourself. As for me, I’m glad I put aside my initial reluctance, took the Nurmi plunge and saw this well-made, heartfelt, revelatory, entertaining biopic.
Vampira and Me will screen at the Los Angeles Film Festival: June 23, 7:30 p.m., Regal Cinemas.