Monday, January 5, 2015

VAMPIRA AND ME (2012)...and HORRIBLE HORRORS (2013)...

                New DVDs Celebrate the horror host phenomenon...
                                                                 by Don Stradley 

Vampira is one of those characters who was popular for a brief time at the dawn of television, but stays in our imaginations for a number of reasons, not the least of which was her grossly sexual appearance.  Also, there is so little footage of her that she remains mysterious. Vampira and Me (2012),  a labor of love from director R.H. Greene, puts the phenomenon in perspective, even if it goes a bit overboard in estimating her importance to American pop culture.  True, she was friends with James Dean, she sported some radical haircuts,  and she glided memorably in Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, but was she really, as Greene’s documentary suggests, a harbinger of everything from women’s liberation to the Goth movement? I’m not sure. But I will say that Vampira’s creator, Maila Nurmi, was a beautiful and interesting lady 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 32-year-old actress and former model when she threw together the "Glamour Ghoul" ensemble for a 1953 costume ball in LA. 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.  Though she’s credited with being the first horror host, and for setting the standard for all others to follow, the hosting gig probably wasn’t what she’d had in mind.  After all, she’d once been groomed by big shot director Howard Hawks as the next major female star, perhaps another Lauren Bacall. On the other hand, Nurmi was fully committed to the Vampira character, willingly starving herself to achieve her creepy hourglass figure, and participating in a publicity blitz that would have impressed Lady Gaga.

There were fan clubs, and articles in LIFE, but Nurmi’s fame as Vampira was short-lived. As Nurmi describes in the documentary, she was “as popular as Pamela Anderson for about five minutes.”  An argument over who owned the rights to the character  stalled her career, and effectively ended it. There were sporadic TV and movie appearances during the remainder of the decade, but by the mid-1960s she’d vanished entirely.  In between, she was stalked by weirdoes, installed linoleum for a living, and owned an antique store called Vampira’s Attic. The low point was when she endured a horrific assault by a lunatic who kept her hostage in her own NY apartment for two hours.  When Nurmi reported the attack, she sat for a police photographer and modeled her bruises cheesecake style.

The dubious reputation of Plan Nine helped create the cultish Vampira  fanbase of which Greene was a die-hard member. Greene originally recorded his interviews with Nurmi in the 1990s as part of another project, but promised to use the footage later on.  With Vampira and Me, he does a lot with a little.  There’s hardly any footage remaining of her original TV appearances, but there’s plenty of other good stuff, including an amazing clip of Vampira dancing in Las Vegas with Liberace.  Though the clips and stills from her prime are breathtaking, I especially enjoyed seeing Nurmi as an older woman. She was still sassy, and able to laugh about  her past.  I think she was a woman of high intelligence, but perhaps too fragile in spirit to deal with Hollywood’s nonsense.  Greene stumbles when he asks Nurmi to play sociologist and explain why the 1950s generation gravitated to her Vampira character. To Nurmi’s credit, she admits that she has no idea.  Greene should’ve skipped such routine questions and spent more time on the unfortunate Vampira vs Elvira lawsuit, when Nurmi unsuccessfully sued Cassandra Peterson for stealing her character. 

Nurmi, who died in 2008 at age 85, is an intriguing enough presence to overcome Greene’s fawning, and the documentary succeeds in part  because of her sly intellect.    Greene tries to inject some rock & roll atmosphere  into the movie, for Vampira inspired a number of rock songs (Nurmi even supplied some startlingly raw vocals for Satan’s Cheerleaders, a garage-punk outfit from Austin).  In my eyes, though, she’s less of a rockin’ 1950s character and more like a new-age grand dame.  Nurmi says at one point that she and James Dean had known each other in past lives, were from another planet, and were lucky to find each other here.  She also claimed to have psychic powers. Fair enough.  Her smile still wins me over every time.  As someone says in the movie, she was in on the joke, and she created the joke. There aren’t many celebrities that I wish I'd known, but she’s one of them.

Like Bettie Page, Vampira's legacy has survived through the sheer power of old photographs.  One could argue that other horror hosts had more impressive careers, but simply lacked the dark sex appeal of Nurmi’s creation.  John Zacherley, for instance, had an impact that rivaled Vampira’s, including a hit song called ‘Dinner with Drac’. As a character named “Roland,” Zacherley was the ghoulish horror host on Philadelphia’s WCAU TV during the late 1950s. Universal Pictures had packaged a number of their old Frankenstein and Dracula movies for televison, and Zacherley was hired to introduce them to a new generation of kiddies.  It was called Shock Theater and was an immediate success. From there, he worked regularly in Philadelphia and New York, doing everything from hosting teen dance shows to making live  appearances at movie premieres. He spent much of the 1970s as a popular radio disc jockey on WPLJ-FM.  He also put out record albums, edited story collections, and relentlessly worked the “cool ghoul” gimmick.  Vampira may have been there first, but Zacherley was there longer.

A recent DVD called Horrible Horrors (2013), a whopping two disc set with nearly three hours of hit or miss junk, gives us a glimpse of Zacherley at work.  We see a man who laughs at his own jokes, and enjoys reveling in corniness. As Vampira, Nurmi took her act into something like performance art;  Zacherly looked more like a whimsical economics professor dressed in a dime store Halloween costume.  I think Zacherley enjoyed being “Zacherley”, but he wasn't one to suffer for his work. He was having fun.  Nurmi, I think, had bigger things in mind, and hoped Vampira would lead to more important projects. I also think she collapsed under the weight of her brief fame, until she became a sort of prisoner of LA, where the spotlight drains of you of something that can't be replaced; Zacherly was a solid soul from Germantown PA, a former military man who'd achieved the rank of major, and seemed much less enamored of La-La land. 

The key to Zacherley’s fortune was his appearance.  True, he told sick little jokes, but it was the cadaverous presence that put him over. I could never tell if he was supposed to be an undertaker, or a corpse. Maybe he was both, the dead looking after the dead.  Zacherley took what Vampira established on her show and removed the sex from it, and relied more on silliness than weirdness. (There is a clip of him from the 1980s taking an E.T. doll and electrocuting it.)   His audience, not surprisingly, was made up almost entirely of little boys.  How popular was he? The DVD includes a scene from the old game show,  ‘What’s My Line’, where Zacherley was the mystery guest. One of the panelists gloats, “My 13-year-old  son wears two buttons on his coat, one of President Kennedy, and one of Zacherley.”

Zacherley, still alive at age 96, deserves a full-scale documentary treatment. There have been some books about him, but nothing like Green’s documentary on Vampira.  As I watched Zacherley on Horrible Horrors, I couldn’t help thinking that he paled next to Vampira.  Yet, he worked for decades, while her career lasted about two years. Why did he survive?  Perhaps it had to do with how women are often treated in show business, kicked to the curb at a certain age.  Or maybe it was because his humor was essentially dumb, and dumbness has proven to last as long as the cockroach.

There was only a fine line dividing Vampira and Zacherley, and all horror hosts to follow, but it’s safe to say that Vampira was a kind of artist, and that her work took a toll on her, while Zacherley was strictly a working man with a journeyman’s instinct for making a buck.   I’ll take one of her ear-splitting screams over his hollow laughter every time. Still,  he lasted and she didn’t.  That tells you something, doesn’t it?

Vampira and Me, and Horrible Horrors, are both available on DVD.

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