I was always facinated with Vampira since seeing Plan 9 From Outer Space as a kid. My Dad would let me stay up until 2am watching whatever sci-fi and horror movies happened to be on the Million Dollar Movie or the Chiller Theatre. I was reading magazines like Fangoria about horror hosts and that tradition since I was 13. Horror stars intrigued me, especially vampires, especially Vampira. Who was she? Why didn't she speak? She was like Greta Garbo, that persona that you can't touch. Most people who have seen Plan 9 remember her exclusively. The image of Vampira has stuck with me for over twenty years, but I never knew that I would cross paths with Maila Nurmi, who played Vampira eons before The Munsters aired.
I have always prided myself on being a visual artist and that's how I have earned my living. Although I made some films on Super 8 when I was 12, I didn't indulge the desire to make films again until I was in my thirties. I came to work for Lloyd Kaufman's Troma Entertainment as an ersatz film school. I studied and worked closely with Lloyd for three and a half years, and learned from him how to be tenacious and fiercely independent in filmmaking. Troma has been in business more than 30 years, longer than any other independent film studio. While Lloyd is not known for producing documentaries, he is very well-known in the "cult" world, into which Ed Wood's work is classified. Lloyd is irked every time he is compared to Wood in publications.
With the Vampira seed still germinating, I decided that I should seek out Maila Nurmi. I started asking around. Everyone I spoke to told me that she'd be impossible to find. Go to the McDonald's in Silverlake (West Hollywood) and look for her, an actor friend instructed. But instead, I finally got an address and started writing back and forth with her. We found we shared the same dry wit. Once we became good friends, I suggested that we begin recording all her great Hollywood stories about Marlon Brando and James Dean. It's funny: Someone emailed me and asked me if she speaks in my movie...could we make a documentary with her as a mute?
But I took a Ken Burns approach to this film instead of the Troma punk-rock aesthetic. I had helped out many filmmakers with various small tasks and had visited movie sets, but a documentary is different-- it's organically-produced and not scripted. Hundreds of hours of footage are generated, then condensed to feature length. This is why editors have daily nervous breakdowns. Much of what we collected for Vampira: The Movie was interviews with Maila Nurmi herself, who was to be the central character and narrator of her own story.
One's rise to fame is always a Faustian deal, as Maila explains it. Hollywood is justifiably called the boulevard of broken dreams. She forged ahead in an early medium called television and found national success for about a period of one year. Then came a one-day gig for Ed Wood. As my friend Conrad Brooks told me, the success of Plan 9 From Outer Space came forty years too late.
So where does that leave Maila? She is a brilliant thinker and at 85, still a force of nature. Like Bettie Page, she is an icon of the 1950s, but she is not recognized on the street. Even the most deft goth rocker would not be able to pick her out of a crowd of grandmothers.
The sessions with Maila were a pleasure. Afterward, I sought out "testimonials" to Vampira. I pursued many of the people I had met on the road at horror conventions around the country. I also asked horror hosts to film bits on the sets of their shows, and put out an APB for fans to send me video footage. My reenactment scenes were shot in sunny San Diego with fetish model Jezabelle X as young Maila. An original score was composed and written by Ari Lehman, who was the first to play Jason Voorhees in the Friday The 13th movie franchise.
The result of the film is a portrait of a woman full of paradoxes. Is Maila Vampira or is Vampira Maila? By the end the film, the answer rings clear: all of us have alter egos.
-- Kevin Sean Michaels