A ghoulish figure steps out of the shadows. Her arms outstretched, a black dress draped across her body, she looks into the camera and lets loose a chilling screech. It’s time for The Vampira Show. For a brief period from 1954-1955, Vampira was the bat’s pajamas. When she wasn’t introducing horror movies for a local Los Angeles television station, she was posing for Life magazine and riding around the city looking for photo opportunities. But just as soon as she hit fame, her time in the limelight faded.
Who was Vampira? You may know she was in one of the most notoriously bad movies of all time, Plan 9 from Outer Space, or that she was the basis for Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. But the story of Maila Nurmi, an American-Finnish actor who wanted to be a star, has more twists and turns than any B-movie could ever contain.
Vampira Was The First Of Her Kind
On April 30, 1954, the greater Los Angeles area got their first taste of Vampira. As her series premiered, this scantily clad, pale, witchy woman emerged from a puff of white smoke. Armed with fingernails that could double as knives, she was possessed of a macabre sensibility that dared viewers to stay tuned - no doubt repelling anyone whose inner goth had not yet been awoken.
Each episode began with Vampira delivering an ear-splitting shriek before she took to her Victorian fainting chair and mercilessly ripped into the feature of the evening - be it horror, science fiction, or a detective film. While the show was on the air, one of her many publicity stunts was to ride around in a 1932 Packard touring car holding a black parasol. Around that time, Life magazine even ran a feature on Vampira. For a moment, at least, it seemed Maila Nurmi had finally hit the big time.
- Photo: Ed Wood/Buena Vista Pictures
After Canceling 'The Vampira Show,' ABC Tried To Take The Character Away From Her
Shortly after James Dean passed in 1955, The Vampira Show was abruptly canceled by KABC. At the time, Maila Nurmi's friendship with Dean put her in unsavory celebrity gossip magazines and ABC thought she was too much trouble for their investment. On top of that, the station attempted to run stories revealing that Nurmi was just a "normal housewife."
On top of everything - Dean's tragic passing, her divorce, the cancellation of her series - Nurmi said ABC even tried to take away the rights to her own character, asking her to sign over the rights while they were kicking her to the curb:
The head of the studio at ABC tried to make me sign a contract in which they would own my character, and I wouldn’t sign it. That’s what it was. They just did the reasonable facsimile, which would work really well. They didn’t need me, but they also didn’t want me around. He was pissed at me. Oh, he was nagging me and nagging me over the phone. He kept calling and calling. I said, 'Mr. Solomon, my answer is no. It is no. Unequivocally, no. I’m not going to say anything else. That’s my answer. I can’t keep talking all night. Please hang up, Mr. Solomon. If you don’t hang up I will have to hang up.'
So, I was blacklisted. He went and got me blacklisted. Nobody was allowed to hire me. I’d get a job once in a while. I used to do one network show a week. An outside show, outside of Vampira, and they would pay me $500, but the little nickels I brought home at this point were no good now that I was trying to support myself. Once they had me off the air, my contract still held, so they were sending me this little weekly check, but they hadn’t had me on the air for months. I would call a studio, or a station and I would say, 'I’m Vampira and I’m available.' And they’d say, 'Wonderful, wonderful. We’ll get right back to you.'
She Tried To Sue Elvira For Taking Her Gimmick
In 1981, Maila Nurmi was poised to make a comeback. KTTV wanted to bring her back for a new version of Vampira, but the deal fell apart shortly after producers hired Cassandra Peterson to play a similar character. Nurmi told Bizarre that she didn't even know about Peterson until she arrived for a contract signing.
After Nurmi was removed from the project, the series was promptly renamed Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Nurmi attempted to file a lawsuit against Peterson and the producers for infringing on her character, specifically the "distinctive, low-cut, tattered black dress, emphasizing cleavage and a voluptuous figure."
The suit failed, but Nurmi didn't go down without a fight, and she had nothing but harsh words for Peterson:
I sued for eight years but not successfully. But you know what? The limousines and the lovers and the houses - they can take all that. That money was meant for animal welfare and she spent it on houses and red limousines. Boy has the devil got that b*tch - it’s the devil in her blood. Initially, they wanted me. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want Vampira to be anything but perfect.
She Starred In What's Widely Considered The Worst Movie Ever Made
Following the demise of The Vampira Show and a series of failed attempts to resuscitate her ghoulish character, Maila Nurmi was out of money, forced to move in with her mother and draw unemployment checks. When B-movie director Ed Wood came along in 1959 with a role in the science-fiction film Plan 9 From Outer Space, she leapt at the chance to get a little work.
Nurmi says that even though she's billed as Vampira in the film, the character she's playing isn't anything like the Vampira she conceived for her show. She told Jonathan Ross:
She was giddy outrageous and I just thought it was better if she was in a trance and [Ed Wood] was just like, 'Okay.'
In an interview with Bizarre, Nurmi was more open about not wanting to recite the scripted dialogue, explaining that she had Ed Wood regular Paul Marco tell the director she didn't want to say anything he'd written in the screenplay:
Paul Marco told him, so I don’t know. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but my God, I could not say those words. I wish I had them today because I threw them away. Do you know what jewels those lines must have been? I tried to say them, but I curdled my own blood.
Of course, the movie found its own immortalized place in film history, infamously earning the distinction of the worst movie ever made before gaining a more affectionate cult following from modern audiences.