You may remember her from her deathly silent turn as Bela Lugosi’s wife in Ed Wood’s camp classic, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” But if you were a horror movie fan in Los Angeles in the 1950s, you were glued to the TV every Saturday night to watch "Vampira" introduce B-grade movies with a campy blend of goth sex appeal and bad graveyard puns.
Driving a stake through the stuffed shirt of the Eisenhower era, Vampira flaunted the conventions of womanhood and became an unlikely icon of female power and sexuality. “The Vampira Show” only lasted a year, but the influence of its undead hostess has lived on in popular culture for generations. Vampira was the creation of actress Maila Nurmi, who died in 2008.
"Maila is important for the history of women in America," said director R.H. Greene. "The 'Vampira' character to me was unquestionably this total rejection of the imposed perception of what women were supposed to be at that time."
Greene added that while it's hard to say whether women really prescribed to the ever-smiling, "June Cleaver" persona, he felt Vampira left a lasting impression because she openly broke the rules.
"I think the reason why Maila hit so hard when she came out is she was standing in the same space. She was inviting you into her house. She was mixing you a cocktail. She often posed over cauldrons as if she was making dinner, pouring poison and blood into the pot. She was standing in the same space and she was saying ... 'It looks like a nightmare from here.' It turns out she wasn't alone," he said.
Director R.H. Greene, who became her friend and confidante in her later years, has assembled long-lost archival footage, rare photos and movie clips to create a documentary film that reveals the complex and fragile woman who brought Vampira to after-life. He recalled an interview they conducted in 1997:
"It's my favorite interview I've ever done – and I've done hundreds of them – because I've never interviewed someone that I loved before, you know? The really difficult interview I did with her was one we did over lunch where I took her out and said, 'We're going to talk about 'the lost period,'' The really dark things that had happened to her," he described. "By this point I think there was a level of trust— there was a little bit of sparring in the interview ... but what's very powerful for me, in watching it, is in a sense it's the high point of our friendship, this kind of odd back and forth in which she's trying to give and I'm actually trying to protect her from giving."
Greene said that besides focusing on how Maila changed the history of American women, he wanted to bring a "blurred image into focus" with his documentary. Though none of her video footage was easily available, her television show only lasted a little over a year and much of her history was known in still photographs, fans remember her.
"When I went and visited Maila's grave at Hollywood Forever. I hadn't been there in awhile and it's a very small stone. She was impoverished, you know?" Greene began. "I asked for directions from the woman in the front room, and I just happen to say to her, 'By the way, do people come and visit Mila often?' and she said, 'Oh yes, she's one of our most popular sites.' Of Hollywood Forever, where Rudolph Valentino and Tyrone Power have reflecting pools and monuments, and Mila has a stone that's very small, tasteful. She's remembered. She's remembered in a really intense way."
According to Greene, a lasting legacy may be enough.
"Her story is in some ways a sad one, but I think of it as a victory in the fact that it was very important to Maila that she be remembered, and she is."
R.H. Greene, filmmaker