AFF2012: Vampira and He

'Vampira and Me' director R.H. Greene speaks

My introduction to feminine carnality came not from the usual stack of your neighbor's dad's Playboys but from the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein magazine, and family outings at screenings of traveling "spook shows" in my native upstate New York.

Among the first -- and certainly the most indelibly imprinted on both my memory and formative libido -- was the image of Vampira, aka Maila Nurmi, the subject of R.H. Greene's AFF2012 documentary Vampira and Me. Words fail when I attempt to describe the spooksexy power those early images had over me, so I'll just quote a lyric from a then-unknown band and their lyricist, the Misfits's Glenn Danzig, which to this day perfectly evokes the 1950's horror-hostess icon's hold on me and so many others:

"Your pulmonary trembles in your outstretched arm/Tremble so wicked/Two-inch nails, micro-waist/With a pale white feline face/Inclination eyebrows to there/Mistress to the horror kids/Cemetery of the white love ghoul, well/Take off your shabby dress/Come and lay beside me/Come a little bit closer..."

Yeah, I know. Potent stuff when the Misfits legendary album Walk Among Us was released in 1982. The imagery -- and Danzig who, despite his faults, was nothing if a great conjurer of spookshow panache back in the day -- still haunts me, as does the American horror story that was Maila Nurmi's life.

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Vampira and Me director Greene and here's the (you'll pardon the pun but let's face it: you axed for it) skinny.

Austin Chronicle: What's the ultimate legacy of Maila Nurmi/Vampira for the modern woman?

R.H. Greene: Of course the immediate legacy is the one that sustained her all this time, a cross-pollinating legacy between punk and goth. I would argue that Maila essentially invented goth, not because she's the first great icon of goth, but because she's the first self-aware icon of goth. There's a difference between Bela Lugosi and Maila, or Karloff with bolts in his neck and Maila. They're all iconic figures, but there's no irony in Lugosi playing Dracula. The audience member might provide the irony by mocking his accent -- and they're fools to do so -- but Maila is making a statement beyond what she's wearing. She's not asking you to take Vampira seriously, she's asking you to take Vampira as something with ironic quotation marks around it, and that's goth. A goth kid walks into Hot Topic and comes out transformed. They're not literally transformed. They've made a choice about defining themselves. And that's exactly what Maila did, which makes her the prototype for goth. And the goths know it and they honor her for that.

AC: So that's the most obvious legacy...

R.H. Greene: What I hope the movie does is that it establishes what is in some ways a wider legacy that Maila deserves to be remembered for, but because of the inadequacy of the record she left behind, it was forgotten over the years.

AC: Which is...?

R.H. Greene: Maila, in her heart, is not a goth. Maila in her heart is a Beat. She's at war with the culture, and she says it over and again in the movie: "There was this soap opera but it was about normal people, and I don't like normal people. I don't like to play them, I don't like to dwell on their very existence." That is who Maila was. is why [James] Dean fell in love with her at first sight. This is why Elvis took her out to dinner, why Brando slept with her. Because they knew she was a part of their tribe, instantly, instinctually. They were saying there's this Norman Rockwell dream that's being imposed on everybody and it's a nightmare.

AC: She was the anti-Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

R.H. Greene: Yes, Maila, when she was playing the Vampira character, she was standing in the space occupied by Donna Reed as the supposedly wholesome breeder in the apron who hands her husband the martini. Vampira was standing there as if she had fangs, screaming as if she had just had an orgasm without benefit of a man to give it to her! Sporting nails the size of a baby's arm, and if she was holding a martini out to you, she'd give you the recipe and then tell you "If you want to include a garnish, drop in an eyeball." She was saying "this is a nightmare, and I'm going to make you laugh about it the way it makes me laugh. But you'll never put that definition on me." It's an act of anti-suburban terrorism, it was a sustained piece of performance art, and Maila deserves, honestly and truly, to be remembered as an early, pro to-feminist icon. One of pop culture's very first, and one of its most aggressive.

Vampira and Me screens Monday, Oct. 22, 10pm at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.

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