By Don Stradley
Popular for a brief time at the dawn of television, Vampira has stayed in our collective imagination for a number of reasons, not the least of which was her grossly sexual appearance. Also, footage of her is scant; she remains mysterious. Vampira's legacy has survived through the sheer power of old photographs and her eerie presence in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Some have credited her with being a harbinger of everything from women’s liberation to the Goth movement, but if that is too pretentious for a lady with six inch fingernails, we can agree that Vampira’s creator, Maila Nurmi, was a beautiful and interesting woman who was not only ahead of her time, but possessed enough chutzpah to light up Hollywood Boulevard on the stormiest of nights.
Nurmi was an unemployed 31 year-old actress when she threw together her "Glamour Ghoul" ensemble for a 1953 costume ball in Los Angeles. Her plan was to attract TV producers, which she did. She was hired to host a late night horror movie slot on KABC-TV (Channel 7 in the Los Angeles area). She allegedly wrote her own jokes, and in her own words, was a sort of “pre-Saturday Night Live,” appearing in skits during the commercials, anything to liven up the often-pitiful B-movies that were being aired.
Despite fan clubs around the world and a flourishing industry of Vampira merchandise, an argument over who owned the rights to the character effectively ended Nurmi’s career after only a few months. There’d been plans for her to star in her own weekly ABC series, and also to host, sans makeup, a children’s fairy tale hour. Neither project saw the light of day.
The dubious reputation of Plan 9 helped create the cultish Vampira fanbase, which bloomed after the Tim Burton biopic of Ed Wood. Nurmi found herself the subject of endless “where are they now” articles and at least one excellent documentary, Ray Greene’s Vampira and Me (2012). As an elderly woman, she was still weirdly dazzling. Nurmi even supplied some startlingly raw vocals for Satan’s Cheerleaders, a garage-punk outfit from Austin, though she was less of a rocker than a new-age grand dame, one who spoke openly about her past lives and how she and James Dean had known each other on another planet.
One could argue that other horror hosts had more impressive careers – Cassandra Peterson, for instance, has worked steadily as “Elvira” since the 1980s and manages her image with a carny barker’s assurance - but none could match the dark appeal of Nurmi’s creation. Nearly 70 years later the rare clips and stills from Vampira’s prime are still breathtaking. Her self-styled marketing campaigns, which included driving around Los Angeles while in full makeup, amusing herself at red lights by letting out one of her ear-splitting screams, sound like that of a self-absorbed woman who craved attention, but this bright and creative soul was perhaps too fragile to deal with Hollywood’s nonsense.
“Vampira is a huge inspiration,” says Danielle Gelehrter, who hosts her own horror series as ‘Penny Dreadful,’ and is a member of ‘The Official Horror Host Hall of Fame.’ “I've always felt immense admiration for Maila Nurmi. I'd rank Vampira as one of the all-time greatest horror hosts of all time… Not only did Vampira have a marvelously dark sense of humor, but she was also a highly intelligent individual who could really look at things from a subversive, unique perspective and deliver her macabre puns in a way that just utterly worked.
“Vampira was something truly ‘other,’ and I think Nurmi was too, so this comes through in the Vampira persona.”
Both Nurmi and Peterson tapped into the subversive comedy of their respective eras. Nurmi relished the “sick” humor of the 1950s, the dark jokes heard on playgrounds, nightclub stages, and particularly in the E.C. comic books that were both popular and controversial at the time. Peterson, who had been creating characters during her time with The Groundlings improv group, incorporated the Valley girl voice that was sneaking into the mainstream by the early 1980s.
“Unlike Vampira, Elvira isn't really ‘something of the grave.’ Elvira's personality is fun, silly, and a little bit naughty, while her look is dark, sexy and weird. I wouldn't just characterize her as ‘silly’ though, because Elvira is a fully formed persona,” said Gelehrter.
Looking at horror hosts of the past is easy. What about the future? How long can they rely on vampire gimmicks and witchy wardrobes? What will a horror host of the future look like?
“Certainly, where there is creativity and passion, there will always be new ideas and unique takes on horror hosting,” Gelehrtner said. “Sometimes, hosts will merge classic imagery with current ideas. I know there was a horror hostess in the 80's who was sort of a New Wave Bride of Frankenstein type. She had a bit of the Elsa Lanchester hair, but with a more ‘new wave’ aesthetic to go with it - sunglasses, neon colors, etc. This is an example of taking a classic horror archetype and combining it with what's popular in the zeitgeist at the time. Things like that can continue to happen in terms of how one constructs their persona - taking classic horror imagery and merging it with something new can lead to some fun scenarios and ideas. It's like any other form of performance - there'll always be someone creative with new ideas and concepts to bring to the laboratory table.”
When The Film Detective spoke to Cassandra Peterson recently, the long reigning queen of horror said the future might actually be difficult for aspiring Elviras and Vampiras. One reason she cited was the difficulty of gaining access to film rights, but the main issue is that recent horror movies are simply too good to mock. The horror films she initially hosted, Peterson said, “had a different quality.”
She elaborated. “They were naïve. They were so low budget; they were great fodder for jokes. Unfortunately, horror movies are so damn good now you can’t joke about them.
“I’m surprised horror has become so big, and it’s popular all year round. I remember when I’d pitch a project that was horror related and they’d say, ‘We can’t do this. People only like horror when it’s around Halloween.’ Now it’s all the time, and they’re making really good horror films. I think a horror host in the future might have a hard time making fun of them because there are just too many good ones out there.
“I had no shortage of bad ones.”
Watch episodes of Elvira's Movie Macabre, now on The Film Detective app.