Friday, January 11, 2008

Vampira: Too Cool for the Graveyard

Some of those horror hosts who succeeded her professionally have preceded her in death, but today the sad news reaches us that Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira -- the world's first horror movie host -- has died of natural causes at the age of 86. This link will take you to a fairly complete episode guide for the historic VAMPIRA SHOW (which ran on KABC-TV, Channel 7, in Los Angeles, Saturday nights at midnight, from 1954-55).

Vampira -- the name was coined by her then-husband Dean Riesner, a screenwriter who, the year before, had penned MESA OF LOST WOMEN -- launched every episode with a scream guaranteed to raise hackles, wearing a black dress so tight it raised many a tent. A shapely creation forged from elements of the "sick humor" that was arising at the time from the beatnik culture (making her a sister of sorts to Lenny Bruce and Brother Theodore), Vampira's sense of humor was dry, droll and devastatingly unpredictable; no one else could get the upper hand with her around. She was simply too cool for the graveyard.

As this remarkable photo encapsulates, Vampira was more than a horror host: she was a genuine pop cultural icon whose original, beckoningly deathly look left what is likely to be a permanent impression on her world. The rough sketch for her character may have originated in the NEW YORKER cartoons of Charles Addams, but it took the corporeal form of Maila Nurmi, her bohemian sensibility, and her dry rapier wit to make it avant-garde and sexy. There had been other "horror women" in the past, like Gloria Holden in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and Acquanetta in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, but only Elsa Lanchester's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN seemed to foreshadow Nurmi's flair for fashion and similarly exult in her own macabre appeal; Holden and Acquanetta, like June Lockhart's SHE WOLF OF LONDON, were accursed, baleful women, saddened by their status as monsters. Maila Nurmi took the beauty of the horror genre, adapted it into a personal fashion statement, and called it Vampira. Unlike her sisters onscreen, Vampira was a one-woman celebration of the pleasures of mixing abominable thoughts and an epicure's libido -- which, it must be said, not only made her horror's first truly liberated female figure, but arguably the first liberated horror character of either sex.

Merely to peruse the list of some of the movies she presented -- ROGUE'S TAVERN, MIDNIGHT LIMITED, LADY CHASER and CASE OF THE GUARDIAN ANGEL (the baby of the bunch, made in 1949!) -- is to realize just how early a phenomenon she was; there was not yet a Universal "Shock Theater" package and, obviously, the world was still four years away from the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine. Vampira never once presided over a Frankenstein, Dracula or Wolf Man movie; her beat was Monogram miseries, British quota-quickies, and forgotten films noir. She also established a behavior pattern for all those who followed in her footsteps by looking down the full length of her nose at them.

Though only a very small portion of the country ever saw her show (of which very little kinescope footage survives), her legend spread like wildfire -- partly through Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s casting of her as Bela Lugosi's dead wife in the immortally cheesy PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1956), where she sported a waistline so narrow that it has been known to make other women wince in pain; it had the ribs-removed look that could make even a martini glass envious. (Of course, in 1994 Lisa Marie gave a touching and dead-on performance as Vampira in Tim Burton's career high ED WOOD.) By the late 1950s, Vampira's likeness had become a popular Halloween mask, an evidence of her fame that also ironically marked the moment when Maila Nurmi lost control of her immortal creation.

It would seem to be her example that resulted in the arrival of this sort of predatory seductress in horror cinema, such as Barbara Steele's Princess Asa in BLACK SUNDAY (1961) and Ingrid Pitt's Carmilla in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1969); indeed, Vampira's two-year reign over the midnight airwaves in Los Angeles influenced Carolyn Jones' performance as Morticia in THE ADDAMS FAMILY TV series, as well. In Jerry Lewis' 1963 classic THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, his character Buddy Love summons a sullen waitress by shouting, "Hey, Vampira!" Her image also crossed over into the music world, evident in everyone from Siouxsie Sioux to Marilyn Manson, and today we can meet any number of Vampiras simply by walking down the street, people who emulate her look and deadpan manner of speaking without ever having seen footage of she who started it all.

Ms. Nurmi's death follows the release last August of VAMPIRA THE MOVIE, a 70m documentary by Kevin Sean Michaels that combines archival footage and one of the last interviews granted by its subject, still wickedly sharp-witted in her mid-eighties. Rest assured that we will see her like again... and again... and again... but let us bow our heads in wistful sadness as another true original leaves the building for a future etched in marble.

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