For its protracted 106 minute runtime, Vampira and Me is a combination of tragic, frustrating, annoying, and enthralling. The problem with the whole project is writer, producer, editor, director, and narrator Greene. Well, okay, the problem with any project about Vampira (Maila Nurmi) is the lack of extant footage of her television show, “The Vampira Show,” which ran in the mid-fifties. Nurmi was an immediate hit—the first glamour ghoul—but broadcasts were live and no recordings were made. Watching Me, there’s just enough remaining footage to show Nurmi as an excellent early television comedian, who kept up and outpaced her costars, and it’s an exceptional bummer the footage just isn’t here.
Much of Vampira and Me is an at least hour-long interview Nurmi recorded with Greene when he was working on another project. Greene, as narrator, says Me is going to be all about how Nurmi isn’t “just” Vampira, so the Vampira in the title is a little weird… ditto the Me, actually, because Greene barely has any anecdotes about his friendship with Nurmi. Except one where he emphases her emotional problems. It’s a weird choice. But Vampira and Me is full of weird choices, like Greene using a bunch of unrelated but contemporary footage because none exists of Nurmi. So you’re watching some commercial from the fifties and supposed to pretend it’s Nurmi or something. Plus he then goes on to add sound effects to actual recordings of Nurmi monologuing. And there are sound effects all the time.
It’s annoying. Like I said, frustrating, tragic, enthralling, annoying.
Nurmi herself—based on the filmed interview material—is a natural raconteur. She knew Orson Welles back in the day and you can imagine they’d have done great banter if given the opportunity. She was also good friends with James Dean during his meteoric rise, which gets a lot of coverage in the film but very little insight. Nurmi was into New Age woo and Greene’s not a good enough interviewer to get through that murky pool to actual insight. The biggest bummer of the film itself is the interview, which a better filmmaker could’ve incorporated into a far better project. The lack of other interviewees is a big problem.
But then there’s Greene’s narrative construction. He jumps ahead to the sixties at one point, then pulls back to the fifties. The timeline wouldn’t be muddled if Greene just did a better job presenting it. He also doesn’t get anything out of the jump ahead and fall back. It also contributes greatly to the slog of the second half.
Then there’s Greene “killing off” his subject; at the beginning of the film, he implies this rare, exclusive interview is going to be the emphasis and everything else will serve to annotate it. Nope. Greene doesn’t cover a lot of Nurmi’s rougher days—she spent almost fifty years in abject poverty, screwed out of continuing popularity because of a dispute with the TV station (they wanted to syndicate with other Vampiras in local markets, she apparently wanted to be Vmapira in all of them—not clear because Greene didn’t think to ask, apparently). He’s got some line about how she went on to a somewhat happy ending at the end and then doesn’t show it or talk about it… she just dies and it’s funeral footage, which is weird.
Also weird is the clips of a dancing fifties girl who looks a lot like Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family” TV show. Nurmi got her idea for the Vampira costume from the Addams Family cartoon strip. She was trying to get noticed by producers to do an Addams Family adaptation, not “The Vampira Show.” And given the Elvira vs. Vampira stuff, which barely gets covered—and Greene at one point makes it sound like Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) was a reluctant nemesis… you’d think he’d clarify. Nope.
But then it turns out Greene’s not a very honest documentarian.
He implies Nurmi’s “Vampira” show was up against “I Love Lucy” in the 1955 Emmy’s when Nurmi was actually nominated for a local Emmy. What makes that deception so galling is the James Dean friendship, which was in contention for years because of a Hedda Hopper book and Nurmi had to fight to be believed. Documentation backs Nurmi up, but it took decades.
Greene’s got a great chance to look at fifties Hollywood and the ephemera of television–the first viral sensations—and he has a handful of good observations, they just don’t go anywhere. And they’re really early in the film.
It’s a testament to Nurmi as a storyteller and personality she’s able to surmount this wanting “homage” just in the single camera interview and a few surviving clips.
Written, directed, produced, and edited by Ray Greene; directors of photography, Larry Herbst, Sean Peacock, and Greene.