JUNE 7, 2012
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)
My introduction to Vampira was probably the same as many from my generation – as a character played by Lisa Marie in the 1994 film Ed Wood (Tim Burton’s last film not based on pre-existing property! Just a guy’s life), as she was a co-star in his infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space. Over the years I had picked up little bits and pieces about her life, such as her failed attempt to sue Elvira and the sad fact that she lived in poverty for most of her post-Vampira life, but it wasn’t until today, when I sat down to watch the documentary Vampira & Me, that I ever learned anything of real note about her – including her real name (Maili Nurmi).
Written, directed, edited, produced, etc by R H Greene, the doc is mostly centered around an interview with Nurmi that Greene shot for an unrelated project. Apparently he didn’t get to use much of that footage for the other piece, so he used it as the skeleton for a full length look at her strange and sad life. Nurmi’s is the only on-screen interview in the film; other folks (including comedian Dana Gould) are heard but not seen giving their thoughts on the woman. It can make things a bit awkward, especially when Greene has to clarify who someone is in between breaks in their audio (“Close personal friend”), but I appreciate that he never broke his rule.
However, I can’t be as forgiving for the excess of random stock footage that permeates the film throughout; even the end credits are padded with puzzling footage from 1950s television that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Vampira. As we learn in the film, there is precious little footage of her in character – her show was broadcast live before the invention of videotape, so nothing was archived. OK, but why do we need to see some unknown variety show over the end credits? Why does Imogene Coca appear so many times? I understand the need to show how she was so different than the other women on TV, but that point is made clear quickly, but the footage keeps showing up. Thus, at times it feels like Greene forgot that he was making a movie about Vampira, not the advent of television in the 1950s.
He can also be maddeningly vague or unfocused about certain topics, particularly her relationship with James Dean. Once good friends, there was apparently an article in some tabloid that suggested her and her “black magic” were the cause of his death, something that understandably upset her a great deal. Greene mentions the existence of this article what seems like a full half hour before explaining what it was about – by that point I had forgotten the context it was originally brought up in the first place. The details of her show’s cancellation are also glossed over, and he neglects to mention two of her three marriages or her post 60s film work (she had a bit part in the “lost” Ed Wood film I Woke Up Early The Day I Died); even her death is treated as an afterthought.
Thus, I couldn’t help but wonder if using the interview as the film’s backbone was the best idea. Since every topic springs from that discussion, it leaves obvious holes in the narrative, so I would suggest reading up a bit on her before sitting down to see the movie. That way you can further appreciate its strengths, such as Nurmi’s obvious comfort and familiarity with Greene, which allows for some wonderful bits of candid reflection. She tells stories of dealing with crazed fans and how she feels about people like Elvira with a refreshing honesty but lack of bitterness that is quite rare to see in these sort of things. And Greene obviously had access to things that a regular interviewer may not, such as recordings of her never completed memoirs, home movies with first husband Dean Reisener, and even a few contracts with ABC from her show.
I also liked that it didn’t turn into too much of a downer, despite the fact that it seems impossible based on the facts. After the appeal of Vampira dwindled (something that’s never really explained – it almost seems like people lost interest overnight), Nurmi worked blue collar jobs like installing linoleum, lived in a 10x20 garage, and became a bit of a recluse, but Greene doesn’t dwell on these things. Instead he focuses on the positive aspects of the last 45 years of her life, such as her iconic stature within the punk rock genre (she even offered guest vocals on a few tracks from Satan’s Cheerleaders) and fan appreciation at conventions and the like. I wouldn’t call it a “happy ending”, exactly, but Greene manages to keep it far from depressing.
Greene’s obvious affection and connection to Ms. Nurmi can make it feel like we’re butting in on someone’s private conversation at times, but it’s an off-kilter approach to a celebrity documentary that I mostly enjoyed. It’s hard to tell if its issues were the result of sticking too closely to the idea of using a single interview as its center, or Greene failing to realize that we as audience members aren’t as close to her as he was and thus are in the dark about certain areas that are common knowledge to him, but the movie still works in spite of them. It’s playing at the LA Film Fest on June 23rd if you’re in the area and would like to see it for yourself; I assume more festival runs are in its future.
What say you?