Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 51: The Wood Spooks, Tor Johnson and Vampira

Reunited in resin: a customized diorama includes miniature likenesses of Tor Johnson and Vampira.

"One of the hallmarks of fifties culture was its fascination with so many things grown abnormally huge ... Exaggeration was a fundamental aesthetic principle of the time, especially when it came to sex appeal ... The populuxe style reveled in distorted proportion. Tail fins and bosoms: The bigger the better! Ant Farms and Sea Monkeys: Tiny is wonderful! ... If oversized and undersized things were both popular, putting the two together was doubly thrilling."  
-The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane and Michael Stern


The Video Movie Guide
One of the first directors with whom I ever became truly obsessed was Baltimore satirist and provocateur John Waters, creator of Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Polyester, and more. In fact, I probably found out about Waters at the same time as I found out about Ed Wood and in the same basic manner, too. I first spotted Waters' and Wood's names, along with those of outre filmmakers like David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Russ Meyer, in chunky but cheap paperback books like the annually-updated Video Movie Guide (later the DVD & Video Guide) by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter and Leonard Maltin's hearty perennial TV Movies and Video Guide (later just Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide).

Sadly, the Martin/Porter series bit the dust in 2006, and Maltin's seemingly deathless guidebook will go the way of all flesh in 2015. Both, the experts tell us, were doomed by the Internet. Personally, I'm sorry that future generations of film geeks won't have the opportunity to spend hours thumbing through these review guides and finding, often by chance, oddball movies that will change the course of their lives.

Also now judged "obsolete," video stores were good for that, too, in the pre-Internet days. When I was in high school, we had a great chain of movie rental places in the Flint area called Michigan Video. I can remember repeatedly renting Two Thousand Maniacs and Shock Treatment from there. Their annual tent sale, in which they unloaded unwanted inventory, was a major event that would attract film fanatics by the hundreds to the parking lot of the South Flint Plaza, a shopping center that was becoming dangerous by the late 1980s and early 1990s. I probably still have some VHS tapes and even laserdiscs from those sales. Nothing by Ed Wood, sorry to say, but that's where I scored my first copies of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise and George Romero's Martin.

In retrospect, movie review guides and video stores were the basis of my cinematic education, the closest I ever got to attending film school. In this increasingly now-focused, new-focused world of ours, how will marginal motion pictures of the past reach contemporary audiences? I wonder, and I worry.

Those video guides and their tantalizing capsule reviews were the gateway drug that led me to more detailed books like Danny Peary's Cult Movies and J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies, both of which contain coverage of John Waters and Ed Wood. One crucial factor that connects these two disparate directors is that you can't really write about them without also discussing the eccentric, unmistakable, and irreplaceable actors who regularly appeared in their films.

In Waters' case, that means not only the 300-pound, cross-dressing force of nature known as Divine, but the entire repertory company of so-called "Dreamlanders": vacant blonde Mary Vivian Pearce; scatterbrained, snaggle-toothed Edith Massey; pugnacious glamour girl Cookie Mueller; scrawny, scheming Mink Stole; and the depraved yet dapper David Lochary. Apart from some voiceover work and a supporting part in Hairspray, John Waters rarely appeared in his own early movies, so his Dreamlanders were the public faces of his work.

Ed Wood, on the other hand, did play the lead role(s) in his own debut feature, Glen or Glenda? (1953), but for the most part, he, too, relied on a stock company of unique performers to people his motion pictures.

Two "Wood spooks"
In Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., biographer Rudolph Grey collectively referred to these colorful characters as the "Wood spooks." I have already devoted an installment of this project to one such spook, the Amazing Criswell. This time around, I am going to take a look at two more: gargantuan Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson and ghoulish Los Angeles horror hostess Vampira. Since these two people are complete physical opposites, it oddly makes sense to pair them up. They complement each other like human salt-and-pepper shakers -- the hulking, hairless man-mountain and the whisper-thin, dark haired succubus. Yin and yang gone berserk. They were both famous for their seemingly impossible measurements. Vampira would fast for days to get her waistline down to 17 inches, while barrel-chested Tor bragged to Groucho Marx about his 60-inch hips and 22-inch biceps.  In fact, when I flip over my copy of Nightmare of Ectsasy, I find Tor and Vampira together on the back cover, two zombies staggering through the make-believe, ink-black graveyard in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Songwriter Rick Tell also paired Tor and Vampira in his composition "Magnificent Carcasses" from Ed Wood: The Musical! 

From my research this week, I coincidentally learned that Tor and Vampira, both marginal media celebrities, knew each other from the public appearance circuit in Hollywood in the mid-to-late 1950s. But what of the people behind the public images? This week, I'm reviewing two books -- one newly published, one semi-recently republished -- that ask us to ponder these human imponderables.



ANY SIMILARITY TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL: An Anthology of Comic Art, 1979-1985 
  
"Tor feel pretty and witty and bright!": Mr. Johnson as depicted by cartoonist Drew Friedman


1997 edition of the book
Authors: Drew Friedman and Josh Alan Friedman

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (April 30, 2012; previous editions by this same publisher were released on September 1, 1986 and December 1, 1997)

Alternate titles: The 2012 Fantagraphics hardcover reprint edition of this book is called Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental (Two) on Amazon, though it is not a sequel to the original 1986 book. The material in this volume originally appeared in a variety of publications, including (but not limited to) Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, High Times, RAW, Weirdo, and Screw.

Availability: This title is easily available on Amazon for about $11-15.

The backstory: I have already covered the lives and careers of the acclaimed and multi-talented Friedman boys back in week 39, when I reviewed The Worst!, a 1994 Ed Wood-themed concept album with songs by musician-writer Josh Alan Friedman (1956- ) and cover art by his cartoonist brother Drew (1958- ). A print ad for that LP called it "the sick musical flowering of a twenty-year obsession with the extraordinary life, work, and sexual paraphilia of Ed Wood, Jr., pornographer, war-hero, director of unspeakable celluloid tortures, big-time lush, and cross-dressing angora adorer." As you might guess from the monomaniacal devotion implied by the words "twenty-year obsession," The Worst! is not the only Wood-related project in the Friedman canon. What concerns us now, my friends, are some comics, largely centered around Tor Johnson, which originally appeared in Weirdo (the now-defunct comics anthology founded by R. Crumb) and Heavy Metal (Leonard Mogel's semi-monthly sci-fi/horror/fantasy/erotica magazine) between 1982 and 1985.

Drew Friedman
These works came to my attention via the 1992 documentary, Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion, in which Drew Friedman appears as an interviewee. Drew also made a poster for the low-budget production in his distinctive pointillist style, and this work of art can be seen behind many of the other actors, acquaintances, critics, and friends who appear in the film. (In a marvelous bit of synchronicity, it hangs behind Maila "Vampira" Nurmi during her interview.) A good-sized portion of this charming and informative documentary is given over to Plan 9 star Tor Johnson, including a visit to Don Post Studio, a now-shuttered company that used to make Halloween masks based on the wrestler's famous face, alongside a demonstration in which director Sam Raimi and writer Scott Spiegel, barely able to contain their laughter, recreate Tor's "landmark appearance" on Groucho Marx's 1950s quiz show, You Bet Your Life!

The segment that concerns us now, however, is the one entitled "Drew Drew Tor Good," which begins with Hawaiian-shirt-wearing critic Bill Warren declaring: "As I said, Drew Friedman, I think, had a large part to do with making Tor into a kind of a cultural icon with his Any Persons Living or Dead book." Then Drew Friedman himself, utterly unprepossessing with his button-up shirt and neat haircut, gives his soft-spoken, half-apologetic testimonial:
Tor: "Fun to draw."
I used to refer to myself as an "illustrator" when I was younger. Now I just like "cartoonist," because it's like the lowest kind of artist you can be is a cartoonist. So I kinda like that. I wanted to disturb people, I guess. You know? And hopefully, this stuff's gonna be funny. I deal with real people and celebrities. And I want people to be confused into thinking that it's actually a recorded moment, that this has actually happened, that Tor Johnson used to roam the streets of New York, and these are photographs of when it actually happened. If there's a thread that runs through everything, I guess it's the fact that it's all done in dots. I guess that sort of sums it up. 
Hopefully, it's dark and disturbing, and it's gonna upset people, although I'm not as interested in upsetting people as I used to be. The Tor Johnson work was never meant to make fun of him. It was always meant to pay tribute to his life, you know. Show that he was a working actor in Hollywood in the '50s, but he also had a life at home, where he'd eat Swedish meatballs and the like. And it wasn't all glamour. I really enjoy drawing his face, you know. As he got a little older, he got deep lines in his brow. And he's got the heavy eyebrows and the pug nose and the pointy bald head. It's just, you know, fun to draw. 
Now perhaps best known as a commercial illustrator and Mad magazine contributor, Drew Friedman has also produced volumes of deliberately grotesque work inspired by the sweatier, grimier aspects of mid-20th-century show business, all drawn in his unmistakable trompe l'oeil style, which mimics the look of black-and-white photographs as they're reproduced in a newspaper. The scripts, often written by older brother Josh, freely intermingle facts, fiction, and outright surrealism. In recent years, Drew has been producing beautifully-rendered books like Old Jewish Comedians (2006) and Too Soon?: Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010 (2010).

In the early-to-mid-1980s, however, the only place to find Drew Friedman's reality-inspired comics was in publications that existed in that sweet spot just far enough outside the mainstream to be considered subversive but not so radical as to be inaccessible to adventurous readers. High Times, RAW and Heavy Metal didn't have the circulation of, say, Rolling Stone or People, but they weren't exactly mimeographed fanzines produced in somebody's basement either.

Along with comedians Abbott and Costello, talk show host Joe Franklin, and singer Wayne Newton, wrestler-actor Tor Johnson (1903-1971) was among Drew Friedman's favorite subjects during that era of his career. In these comics, Tor is portrayed as a simple, guileless, good-hearted naif with eternally whited-out eyeballs and the grammar and syntax of a small child. His mangled English ("Tor like oatmeals") seems to be derived from his speech patterns as the manservant Lobo in Boris Petroff's 1957 film The Unearthly, in which Johnson utters the immortal line, "Time for go to bed!" In fact, in one comic ("Tor Johnson's Hollywood Tour"), Friedman actually has the actor say, "Time for goin' home for meatball." Identified by Friedman as a "beloved Hollywood character actor," Tor staggers blindly through Hollywood and New York very much alone like a lobotomized King Kong or a happy-go-lucky Frankenstein monster, oblivious to his own strangeness.

Befitting Drew Friedman's "dark side of show business" motif, the movie industry seems to be done with Tor in these comics. He is never shown in gainful employ. One narration box informs us: "By 1960, the big Swede's movie career was all but over, but his heart still belonged to the movie capital." But this situation does not trouble Tor for long. After all, there are Swedish meatballs to be devoured.

In 1986, Fantagraphics compiled Drew's early '80s material into a single volume cheekily entitled  Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental, which as of this writing has been reprinted twice. As evidenced by Bill Warren's comments in Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, having these cartoons compiled into a single book brought both Drew Friedman and, by extension, Tor Johnson to a wider audience in the 1980s. This would have been just a few years after Harry and Michael Medved's Golden Turkey Awards book in 1980, i.e. the first wave of notoriety/quasi-popularity for Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his films. The prominent placement given to Drew Friedman and Persons Living or Dead in the Plan 9 documentary suggests to me that these comics played a role in building or strengthening the burgeoning Wood cult during the Reagan years.

Specifically, the Tor Johnson/Ed Wood content in the book is as follows:

  • Table of Contents - Small portraits of Dudley Manlove, Bela Lugosi, and Ed Wood appear here
  • Tor Johnson at Home: A Visit Back to 1959 Hollywood (page 21) - A series of scenes depicting supposedly typical moments in the day of the life of the wrestler turned actor. He takes a bath, prepares Swedish meatballs, chats with his agent on the phone, and scans the Hollywood Reporter for "industry news." What he does not do, however, is work on any movies or television shows. [originally published in Weirdo, February 1982]
  • Tor Johnson's Hollywood Tour (page 24) - Unemployed and without direction in his life, Tor wanders the streets of Hollywood and wistfully thinks back on his past career. "Tor made pitcher here once," he says as he stands outside the gates at Paramount Pictures A security guard shoos him away. Still eager to work, he wonders why the phone has stopped ringing. Soon, though, his thoughts turn to Swedish meatballs, and he returns home to his loving wife. [originally published in Heavy Metal, September 1984]
  • Tor's Nightmare (page 31) - Tor has a dream in which he wanders around what looks like the cemetery set from Plan 9, with bare, gnarled tree branches in front of a black backdrop. There, he encounters two Tor Johnson clones, each wearing a "TOR" T-shirt. All three of these hulking bald men claim to be the "real" Tor. Disturbed by this nightmare, Johnson awakes in a cold sweat and telephones an utterly bewildered (and, judging by the bottles on his nightstand, boozed-up) Bela Lugosi to ask, "Bela, how many Tor?" [originally published in Heavy Metal, January 1985]
  • Tor in New York (page 36) - Tor takes a "dandy" vacation to the Big Apple "in early 1963." As usual in these comics, Tor is utterly alone in New York but is apparently unbothered by that fact. He walks through an empty subway station and rides an empty train, all while talking about himself in the third person: "Time for Tor to go on subway. Tor havin' fun on subway." [originally published in Heavy Metal, May 1985]
  • The Edward D. Wood, Jr. Players Trading Cards (pages 66-67) - Before they were released as a real-life collector's set, some of Drew Friedman's proposed Ed Wood trading cards were first glimpsed in this two-page spread, formatted as a fake advertisement like you'd see in a 1950s comic book. Included here are Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood, Criswell, Vampira, Dudley Manlove, Tor Johnson, Joanna Lee, Kenne Duncan, Tom Mason, Captain DeZita (referred to only as "Unknown"), Gregory Walcott, and Mona McKinnon. The promotional text at the top of the page says that these cards come from "a series of 24." Eventually, Drew Friedman wound up making 36 cards. There are some interesting changes between the cards in this article and the later, real-world ones: the drawing of Tor Johnson is completely different; Bela Lugosi is labeled "Actor-Junkie" rather than just "Actor"; Captain DeZita's name and occupation are missing; and the font on all the cards is different. [originally published in Heavy Metal, July 1985]
  • Plan 9 From Outer Space (page 68) - This one-page comic includes an alternate, Tor-centric poster for the 1959 film, as well as some "great moments" from the film itself. From offstage, an exasperated Ed Wood tells Tor: "I am the director, thus I direct... yet, therefore please follow my... er.... direction..." Also seen here: Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Bunny Breckenridge, Joanna Lee, and Duke Moore. [originally published in Heavy Metal, October 1983]
  • Devil Postcards (pages 70-71) - Eight Satan-themed postcards are presented, including two that depict Tor Johnson with devil horns and a tail. In "That Devil Tor," the wrestler is shown sitting up in bed, wearing polka-dot pajamas and grasping a cigar in one hand and a shot glass in the other. "Tor want light," he exclaims. In "Blazing Tor," a shirtless Tor Johnson thrusts his hands deep into the pockets of his high-waisted pants as he squats in front of a wall of flames. Interestingly, another "Devil Postcard" features a drooling, sweating likeness of George "The Animal" Steele, who would portray Tor Johnson in 1994's Ed Wood. [previously unpublished]
  • Glossary (end of book) - Tor Johnson, Ed Wood, and Vampira  are among the celebrities who get brief biographies on this page. Also included is a small portrait of the "sultry, Finnish-born" Vampira. Tor's bio is as follows: "400-pound Swedish character actor/wrestler who stunningly portrayed white-eyeballed zombies in '50s horror films. His mask (as Lobo character) is available at novelty shops everywhere. God, how we miss him."
  • Back cover - A beautiful full color portrait of a gape-mouthed Tor Johnson appears against a blue sky backing. [originally commissioned by Rhino Video, which distributed some of Tor's films in the 1990s]
A couple of notes before we continue: The stories listed above are not the only comics Drew Friedman did about Tor Johnson in the 1980s. However, for the purposes of this article, I'm limiting myself to the examples actually included in Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental. A simple Google search turns up others. Also, even though Josh Alan Friedman is specifically listed as a writer on many of the stories in this book, the Tor Johnson adventures here are all credited to Drew alone. What involvement, if any, Josh had with these is unknown.
The reading experience: "The only word for this is trans-plendid. It's trans-plendid!" So said Shelley Duvall to Woody Allen in Annie Hall. She was describing the Maharishi, whom she spotted coming out of the restroom at a concert hall, but I'm borrowing her neologism to describe the experience of poring over the pages of Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental. As an Ed Wood fan, I am naturally delighted and intrigued by the stories in this book that feature Tor Johnson as a protagonist. The lovingly-made, extremely-detailed drawings of Tor and other Wood acolytes are enough to warrant a purchase of this volume. But what really makes this book special is the morbid humor and gruesome imagination that Drew Friedman and his brother bring to their playfully sick showbiz vignettes.

Even better, they have what I consider exquisite taste in subject matter. The Friedmans specialize in covering an era of entertainment that seems all but unthinkable now, a time when America turned to lumpy, misshapen, middle-aged men for entertainment. Nowadays, even comedians are generally expected to be young, well-groomed, camera-friendly, and relentlessly likable. But there was a time not so long ago when men who looked like walking, talking caricatures dominated screens both big and small. They were fat. They were bald. They had big noses and big ears. And, above all, they did very little to ingratiate themselves to the audience or make themselves appear "normal" or "everyday." They were unapologetic freaks. You might laugh at the antics of the Three Stooges, Jimmy Durante, or Laurel and Hardy, but you didn't want to necessarily hang out with them on the weekends. These weren't "virtual drinking buddies," the way comedians today are. These were human grotesques -- monsters with weird hairstyles and cheap, ill-fitting suits.

Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is a treasury of second bananas, sidekicks, and sitcom schlemiels. Most Hollywood nostalgia is focused on the good-looking "matinee idols" and "blonde bombshells" of the past -- people like Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Those folks don't seem to hold much fascination for the Friedmans, however. They'd rather tag along with I Love Lucy's William Frawley, who is humorously depicted as a gangster, pimp, and all-around badass. Or perhaps they'll eavesdrop on forgotten TV host Arthur Godfrey, who cruelly invites "mutants" to dinner specifically to mock them to their malformed faces. Drew and Josh Alan Friedman are drawn to the weird, seedy, often overlooked aspects of film and television.

It's only natural that the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr. should become fodder for the brothers as well. Over and over again while perusing their work, I was reminded of a monologue Ed gave to Criswell in Orgy of the Dead (1965): "This is a story of those in the twilight time. Once human, now monsters, in a void between the living and the dead. Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!" The characters in Persons Living or Dead really are half-human, half monsters. They truly exist in a void between life and death. And, above all, they do challenge us to both despise and pity them. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


VAMPIRA: DARK GODDESS OF HORROR
  
Detail from the cover of a newly-published biography of Maila "Vampira" Nurmi

Author: W. Scott Poole

Alternate titles: None yet. The book's only been out about two months now. Give it time.

Publisher: Soft Skull Press (Kindle edition released August 18, 2014; paperback edition released August 29, 2014)

Availability: You can snag this book for $10-14 on Amazon. Or, you know, wherever books are sold.

Maila Nurmi at the peak of her fame.
The backstory: Author and college professor W. Scott Poole (best known for 2011's Monsters in America) has given his book about 1950s horror hostess and occasional B-movie actress Maila Nurmi (1922-2008) the rather generic title Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. As I see it, however, this volume could just as easily have been subtitled A Year at the Top. The entire book hinges on the brief period from 1954 to 1955 when Nurmi played host to old, low-budget, black-and-white horror films at Los Angeles' KABC-TV on a Saturday late night program known variously as Dig Me Later, Vampira or simply The Vampira Show. The program was cancelled at the peak of its notoriety, and its bewitching hostess never truly recovered. The first thirty-three years of Nurmi's life seem to have been leading up to that one golden season of television success, and the remaining fifty-three years were spent, to one degree or another, living off that initial burst of fame.

Frustratingly, KABC did not bother to preserve any tapes of The Vampira Show, so it is impossible to truly judge or review that pivotal piece of Americana. Maila Nurmi's story, then, is like a delicious pastry with a great big hole in the middle of it. At least with Ed Wood, there are plenty of actual movies, stories, and novels to attest to his existence. Maila Nurmi's real legacy, on the other hand, is her own image, seen in old still photos and in brief film appearances like the one she made in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Poole began writing and researching Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror well after Maila Nurmi's death at age 85 in 2008. Do not expect, therefore, any new or previously unpublished interviews with Nurmi herself. Based on what's in this book, I don't think the author ever actually met the real Vampira, and it doesn't seem that Poole conducted many original interviews with relatives, associates, or experts in the preparation of this book. Dark Goddess of Horror can thus be described as a bio-bibliography. What Poole has done -- and painstakingly so -- is to comb through previously published newspaper articles, magazine stories, and books in search of any information about Maila Nurmi's life and career. Clearly, this man has done his homework, and a solid outline of the Vampira story does emerge from these pages. I shall try to summarize Poole's version of the story below.

A Plan 9 publicity shot.
Elizabeth Maila Syrjäniemi (or Maila Elizabeth) was not born in Finland in 1922, despite what she liked to tell interviewers and journalists in later years. Her real birthplace, Poole suggests, was Gloucester, Massachusetts. Furthermore, her claim that she was related to Finnish Olympic diver Paavo Nurmi ("the Flying Finn") was another fabrication on the actress' part. She did, however, spend her youth in close-knit, cloistered Finnish immigrant communities. Her father traveled a great deal in his professional roles as a temperance lecturer and editor of Finnish-American newspapers, so young Maila moved around a lot as a child and grew into an awkward, insecure adolescent.

Puberty, however, was kind to her, and she emerged as a restless and beautiful young woman who broke free of her conservative family and became a vagabond during the Great Depression. That was when she took on the half-invented, half-based-on-reality name of "Maila Nurmi." She eventually made her way to New York, where she did some modeling and became a peripheral presence in the early beatnik scene. Like many dreamers with stars in their eyes, Maila migrated to Los Angeles, where she did some further modeling and made some contacts in the art and fashion worlds.

Her big break came when she was in her early 30s and snagged an invitation to a high-profile Halloween party, where she won a costume contest with an early version of her "Vampira" get-up. This scored her a gig on local TV, hosting horror movies late at night on Los Angeles' KABC. Her character, heavily influenced by Milt Canniff's Terry and the Pirates comic strip and Charles Addams' macabre and witty New Yorker cartoons, was an immediate hit with Los Angeles viewers and began to attract national attention. This may have been more of a curse than a blessing, as the added scrutiny also brought viewer complaints about Vampira being inappropriate for television. Due to such complaints, along with contract disputes and a few myriad personal scandals, KABC dropped The Vampira Show after only one season.

Desperate for work, Maila Nurmi took smallish roles in a handful of B-movies, like Plan 9 from Outer Space. After these dried up, she lived on public assistance, took some odd jobs, and eventually opened a "rag and bone shop" called Vampira's Attic on Melrose Avenue in 1967. This closed in the mid-1970s, and Maila Nurmi became increasingly hermetic in her lifestyle, subsisting on sales of her jewelry and artwork. Her last public performances were in the 1980s, when she briefly became a fixture on the LA punk scene. During that decade, she was also involved in a prolonged and unsuccessful legal dispute with Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson.

Nurmi's portrayal by Lisa Marie in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) brought her some late-in-life attention and led to some interviews and public appearances. After a few decades existing on the very fringes of show business, she died a rather lonely death at the age of 85 in 2008.

Maila Nurmi had some terrific pop cultural adventures before then, however, and her biography is studded with famous names. Various celebrities show up in Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror as friends, employers, lovers, rivals, and mentors. Among the supporting players in her extraordinary life are Liberace, Mae West, Marlon Brando, Burt Reynolds, Howard Hawks, and James Dean. Of these, only Dean sticks around long enough in the book to make much of an impact.

In fact, Maila Nurmi's morbid, perhaps unhealthy obsession with the handsome, doomed young actor may be one of the factors that derailed her once-promising career. It was certainly poor judgment, for instance, to be photographed alongside a heavily-bandaged Dean lookalike shortly after the real Dean's death in a car accident. But that's the kind of gal Maila Nurmi was. From her earliest days, she was hungry for attention and didn't seem to mind where or how she got it. Bad publicity, in her mind, was better than none. This attitude, along with the dissolution of her marriage to future Dirty Harry scribe Dean Riesener, effectively torpedoed her career in the 1950s.

Since this is Ed Wood Wednesdays, I feel it is my duty to inform you that Eddie himself shows up about two-thirds of the way through Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. Much of what Poole writes about Wood is the standard line about the director: he was an untalented hack with no ability to make a movie, write dialogue, or tell a coherent story. In these respects, he is unfavorably compared to both Roger Corman and (bizarrely) Tod Browning. Eventually, when the subject turns to Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic, the author's tone softens considerably, and he shows some affection towards Wood. But W. Scott Poole's credibility is hurt in this section of the book by some glaring inaccuracies. Here, for instance, is how he describes the plot of Bride of the Monster (1955):
"Lugosi plays a mad scientist hiding away from humanity in the depths of an unidentified jungle. Here he builds a Frankenstein-like monster, portrayed by the wrestler Tor Johnson."
Uh, nope. Though Lugosi refers to his home as "this forsaken jungle hell," the surrounding terrain is actually a swamp. What's more, the place is frequently identified by name by virtually every speaking character in the film. As a quick viewing of the movie will tell you, it's the Old Willows Place on Lake Marsh. The titular monster, furthermore, is an octopus. Lugosi informs us that Tor Johnson's character, Lobo, is "quite human." In fact, Lugosi's Dr. Vornoff scoffs at the idea that Lobo is the infamous monster of Lake Marsh. "Perhaps someday, you will meet the monster!" he tells some interlopers near the beginning of the film. These little goofs are typical of the coverage of Ed Wood in Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. There are further flubs and half-truths I could list here. They're understandable, since Eddie is only a fleeting figure in Maila Nurmi's story. But if you're looking through this book for new information about or insight into Edward D. Wood, Jr., you will be disappointed.

The first Vampira book.
The reading experience: This is one of those times when I have to keep reminding myself to focus on the positive aspects of a situation and not let my own petty gripes and complaints spoil all the fun. Because of W. Scott Poole, we now have a professionally-written, thoughtful, full-length biography of Maila Nurmi, packed with historical information and studded with interesting details. Previous to this, the only thing even close to such a book was John Skerchock's self-published, tough-to-find, and poorly-reviewed Vampira Unauthorized (2010), a volume that Amazon customers award one star out of a possible five and to which they unkindly refer as "deplorable," "horrible," and "low quality." Certainly, W. Scott Poole's much-classier book is an improvement over that. How could it not be? It's very possible that Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror is precisely the volume that Skerchock's disappointed customers have been pining for. (The Amazon reviews are weirdly focused on the pictures rather than the text, however, so who knows?) And, in truth, it's not a bad purchase at all. I'm glad to have it in my e-book collection. Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror is a quick, entertaining read, and once you make your way through it, you will definitely have a better sense of who Maila Nurmi was, what she accomplished, and why we should still care about her today.

So why am I not entirely happy? Or, rather, why is my enthusiasm for this book somewhat dampened? Quite simply, I feel that W. Scott Poole has exerted too heavy a hand in imposing his own theories and beliefs on the life of Maila Nurmi. Ms. Nurmi was a horror hostess, yes, but Poole also wants us to know that she was a feminist icon, a sexual trailblazer, a rebel against the stifling "containment culture" of the 1950s, a champion for the LGBT community, and, above all, a long-suffering martyr to male chauvinism. Since actual biographical details about the reclusive, elusive Maila Nurmi are relatively rare, Poole overcompensates by providing a superabundance of context for the Vampira phenomenon. He wants us to know what was happening in American society at large and what was happening in popular culture in particular during the decades that Nurmi lived and worked. That's fine. It's a big part of what I try to do with Ed Wood Wednesdays. It's what I'd expect a professional biographer to do.

The problem, as I see it, is that this historical and social contextualization overpowers the central narrative. The true story of Vampira barely has room to breathe here, since Poole can't go for more than a paragraph or so without pontificating or editorializing. He's too eager to present Maila Nurmi as a victim and too willing to blame all of her downfalls on small-minded, hateful men or societal prejudices. He lets Vampira herself off the hook nearly every time. A perfect example is when Poole discusses Maila Nurmi's string of short-lived, failed marriages to other showbiz figures (a screenwriter and two actors). "She brought horror into her relationships," Poole writes, "at least for men transfixed by midcentury images of masculinity." To me, it's worth considering that the common factor in the actress' three failed marriages was Maila Nurmi herself.

Similarly, when talking about Nurmi's career downturn in the late 1950s, Poole blames society at large: "An increasingly religious America that had transformed Billy Graham into a household name would never elevate a woman to stardom who embodied both ancient terrors and the modern threats of the sexual revolution." To this, I would say two things: first, America did at least temporarily elevate Vampira to stardom, and second, Billy Graham has less than nothing to do with the Vampira saga. Why are you dragging him into this? It feels like an arbitrary, unearned cheap shot at the religious right.

Was Lucy a slave to the patriarchy?
More than once, I found myself cringing at Poole's self-righteous, condescending portrayal of 1950s America as a place of neatly manicured lawns and immaculate, slip-covered furniture. As you might expect in a book of this nature, the usual villains -- J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and June Cleaver -- are trotted out as examples of how repressed, ignorant, and prejudiced this country was during the Eisenhower years.

Poole has an almost pathological grudge against Lucille Ball, too, depicting I Love Lucy as a parable about supposed male superiority and Lucy herself as a willing slave to the patriarchy. If the audience actually rooted for Lucy Ricardo to bend to the will of her husband Ricky or if she really took his warnings to heart for any length of time, then Poole might have a point. But it was Lucy's indomitable personality that defined the series, and she was the one who continued as a television personality for many years after I Love Lucy (and Lucy and Desi's own marriage) ended. To me, it seems eminently unfair to chastise those who lived in the past simply because they don't conform to the values and morals of 2014. How could they be expected to do so? Why do we require the past to genuflect to the present? We are not all-wise, after all, and it is a certainty that those in the future will judge us as harshly as we now judge our ancestors.

As much as I cherish the indelible image of Vampira and as much pleasure as I take from her silent appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space, I cannot help but feel that perhaps Maila Nurmi played a major role in her own downfall. She was talented and visionary, yes, but she was also something of a delusional, self-defeating flake whose relationship to the truth was sketchy at best. W. Scott Poole makes a thorough argument on her behalf, but I'm not quite willing to purchase everything he's trying to sell here.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    I cannot help but wonder if Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror is as bad as Larry Fine's "as told to/autobiography" Stroke of Luck? Hoo, boy! I bought it because I'd been hunting for it since 1980 (I was a strange 5-year-old.) When I finally found it 24 years later? It was as bad as many of the folks who'd visited Larry in the "Home" said it was. (Unfortunately, they'd thrown their copies away!)

    I'll say this for the "author," James Carone--he didn't use the book to try to explain why the Stooges were finally getting their due, etc., but the man HAD to be high when he "wrote" it.

    As for the Maila Nurmi books--I'll keep an eye out. There's something about the "Spooks" that fascinates me. I can't quite put my finger on it.

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