Saturday, January 30, 2021

'Glamour Ghoul' is a biography that Maila Nurmi, Vampira, merits

Review by Doug Gibson

In January of 2008, Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, was found dead in her small Los Angeles home. She was 85. She died alone, on her couch with her feet propped, resting on a patio chair. The TV was running. Her cat, Violet, had died next to her. Her dog, Houdini, was alive but had to be put down. In her last days, she had felt exhausted, but thought it was due to her thyroid. It turned out to be her heart that was failing.

It's a death that arguably could be described as tragic. However, it's an example of Nurmi's survival instincts. She made the decisions in her life. Relying on chance, or others, had harmed her too much during 65-plus years since she stepped off a bus in Los Angeles in 1941.


Maila was also Vampira, a host whose weekly scream during the staid 1950s represented an orgasm. The censors, of course, never knew that.  Several dozen episodes hosting a horror movies show gained her short-term fame in the 1950s. Her brief appearance in Ed Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space," a film she acted in for $200 and didn't see until 1980, 20-plus years after its small release, re-ignited interest in her dark beauty and gothic, sexual look.  Below is a picture with Bela Lugosi. Ironically, he didn't plan on being in "Plan 9 From Outer Space," either.

After the "Plan 9 From Outer Space"/Ed Wood cultural craze, we saw our share of Maila in a slew of documentaries, and interviews and writings in books and magazines. She teased those interested with tidbits of information about experiences with Orson Welles and Elvis Presley, jobs with Mae West and Liberace, meals with an Ed Wood crony, Criswell, and her friendship with James Dean. But there always seemed to be more to the story.


Four years after her death, friend and filmmaker R.H. Greene provided a deeply personal, fascinating documentary, "Vampira and Me," that filled gaps in the often-coy past reminisces from the late actress. Frankly, despite a couple of other books and an earlier film documentary, I thought Greene's effort would likely be the best we'd get.

I was wrong. Sandra Niemi, the niece of Maili (who receives thanks in Greene's film), penned "Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maili Nurmi," (Feral House, 2021). It took Niemi a long time to get this to publication, but it's worth the wait. 

Maila Nurmi was born in Gloucester, Mass., not Finland. Her father, Onni, a Finnish immigrant, was a lifelong newspaper editor and a fierce advocate of Prohibition. Ironically, her mother, Sophie, a U.S. native, was an alcoholic. A spotty employment record caused the family to move often, to new newspaper jobs. She had a brother, Bobbie, author Sandra's father.

Nurmi graduated from high school in Astoria, Ore. For a while, after a brief stint in college, she tried to follow her parents' vision -- work in a fish cannery and get married. It was that manufactured future she rebelled from, and prompted her leaving for Los Angeles in 1941.

A theme to "Glamour Ghoul" is survival. Except for several years in a common-law marriage with screenwriter Dean Riesner (during the Vampira years), and some gigs in Las Vegas, including with Liberace, Maila Nurmi was poor. In her worst times, she cleaned houses, was discreetly half-starved, and lived in garages sans furniture. It's likely her highest income never put her ahead of the middle class.

At the same time, she was a success. In the mid 1940s, through sheer grit, she appeared on Broadway stages in New York City. She was part of a Mae West show. Her youth and beauty apparently made West jealous, who then fired her. A cool irony of her West experience is that in later years her friend Criswell, a friend of West, would bring Murmi meals cooked by West. 

"Glamour Ghoul," besides providing new information on Maila's life -- and I don't want to provide spoilers to readers -- offers more meat to her relationships with Orson Welles, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Anthony Perkins, and Elvis Presley. All these individuals, and many more, serve as players in Maila's real-life drama from naive, exploited, adult-child to hopeful, to star, to ex-star, to forgotten star, and to survivor. All of the players in Mails's life have flaws. Some are utterly despicable; some much better and kinder than others. 

Maila was impressive enough to get the notice of Hollywood mogul Howard Hawks, who brought her to Los Angeles and signed her to a contract. In a rash act, Maila, hurt by professional criticism, burned bridges with Hawks, tearing up her deal. Nevertheless, she survived in Hollywood, dancing, working clubs, bit roles in a couple of films, and getting notice as a model for magazines. In her 30s, "Vampira" achieved her fame, but very little money. The 1960s and '70s were a rough time for Nurmi, but her will to be independent, and abide with what life dealt out, kept her going.

Maila made a lot of mistakes, including turning down more work with Liberace. She suffered badly from deranged fans who hassled her. Through her life she was assaulted, physically and sexually. Emotional abuse hurt and affected her mental stability at times. Powerful people abused her. Although she retains her icon status, she lost any significant monetary reward for her creation with the emergence of Cassandra Peterson's "Elvira."


"Vampira" is a sophisticated, dark, alluring creature with devastating wit. "Elvira" is a cleavage-heavy ditz designed to appeal to the lusts of over-sexed teenage boys. I can state that with authority because I was one of those over-sexed teenage boys captivated for a time by Peterson's juvenile performance art and wisecracks.

It is endearing to read more about how the then-beginning punk rock movement enhanced Maila's later years. They embraced her; they appreciated her. That is so appropriate because Maila was a real bohemian, unforced, and no cliche. She was a kindred spirit, and they responded to her. I enjoy the anecdotes about Maila's success as a street merchant, as well as working the front-desk phone, very late in life, at a dominatrix escort center. God bless Sandra Niemi for the biography. It's appropriate that Feral House is the publisher, as they also published the gem "Nightmare of Ecstasy," the Ed Wood oral biography by Rudolph Grey.

A final note: One quibble: Please provide an index in a further printing. And, very important, the final epilogue will give you chills, and possibly tears. I've tried not to be too specific in this review. I don't want to spoil things for readers. I urge readers to always keep the epilogue a secret too. Don't spoil it. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Hellborn -- the Ed Wood wannabe movie that never was completed

 Review by Doug Gibson

Thanks to Greg Dziawer, Ed Wood researcher, I finally was directed to my first viewing of "Hellborn," a video marketed by Cult Movies Magazine 27 years ago. It contains takes from an Ed Wood-directed wannabe film that would have been titled, drum roll, "Hellborn." Plans were to have Conrad Brooks and Ed Wood star in this Wood-directed effort on the juvenile delinquency "crisis" of the 1950s.

Michael Copner, former editor at the magazine, hosts the video along with the late Wood company actor Conrad Brooks. Long ago I wasn't persuaded by the ads to buy "Hellborn." Later, after the magazine ceased publication and my interest in Ed Wood increased, I couldn't find a way to purchase "Hellborn." It wasn't streamed. It wasn't for sale on EBay or Amazon. I thought I'd missed my chance on this one.

Until this weekend, when Dziawer alerted me it's now on YouTube. It's not easy to find in the site's search function so here is a direct link.  So, after wanting to see this film for roughly a generation, what's my take?

First, the "Hellborn" takes included are not the best parts of the film, although they are fun to watch and mandatory for a Wood completist. The best takes from "Hellborn" are not in this film because they were used in two films, "Night of the Ghouls," and "The Sinister Urge," which features the best scene, a pretty cool fight between Ed Wood and Conrad Brooks. Wood apparently sold or donated that footage to producer Roy Reid, of Headliner Productions, for whom Wood directed "The Sinister Urge." The "Night of the Ghouls" "Hellborn" takes include a decent crash scene with a teen dangling, presumably dead, from the window of a car.

So what's left for "Hellborn" the video is a long take of a particularly violent beating on a street, with another Wood actor, Mona McKinnon, watching the beating. (A little bit of that is in "Night of the Ghouls.") The primary new scene for viewers is one of a bunch teens going out to a picnic of sorts, filmed at Griffith Park, and then pairing off later for sexcapades. As Wood fans know, several scenes include Wood in drag pretending to play teenage women. Even with the poor quality of the then almost 50-year-old footage in 2003, Wood does not really fool anyone.

Prior to the takes, Copner and Wood discuss the history of the Hellborn effort. The genesis of the film extends as far back as the "Glen Or Glenda" era. Producer George Weiss, Brooks relates, failed to generate interest initially among investors. Then later films crowded out time for and interest in "Hellborn," although sporadic filming continued well into the mid 1950s.

There's more to this roughly hour-long documentary. Although I think much of the footage can be seen in other films, Brooks narrates footage of a "home movie" Wood directed and produced for Conrad and his brothers in 1948. It's a western of sorts. As entertaining as the footage is Brooks' narration, pointing out Hollywood of 70 plus years ago and noting other Wood characters such as Johnny Carpenter. 

Frankly, in this footage the still-young Wood is incredibly handsome. Calling him an Errol Flynn type is not an exaggeration. It's easy to see why he attracted Dolores Fuller, for example. It's jarring to see this Wood and then turn the clock ahead 20 years and see the bloated, red-faced, alcoholic Wood of 20 years later in "Love Feast." 

There's more in "Hellborn." We then see an eight-minute short that Brooks directed, called "Mystery in Shadows." It's shot with actors as shadows, accompanied by a narrator/storyteller. It's actually kind of interesting and entertaining; as a one-reel short.

Finally, there's even one more segment to "Hellborn." It's my favorite part of the film; definitely the most bittersweet. It's an interview with former movie actor, Peter Coe, in whose house Ed Wood died in late 1978, soon after he and his wife Kathy were evicted. Coe's films included "House of Frankenstein" and "The Mummy's Curse." Coe relates incidents such as hunting with Lon Chaney Jr.

It's very emotional to see Coe in this interview. He looks very old and emaciated, lying in bed. He was very near death when this interview was conducted. Brooks is very kind, as is Copner, during the interview. Coe seems exhausted early and his answers are brief, due to his condition, not his temperament, which is polite. He perks up later, seemingly genuinely pleased when told fans of the magazine ask about him. Near the end of the interview, describing how Wood is removed from his home in a mere bag, Coe effectively conveys his outrage at the disrespect Wood was shown. "It was sickening," he says with passion and emphasis.

Issues of Cult Movies magazines contain articles on "Hellborn." I recall Brooks sharing some faux publicity blurbs Wood had written, including one about it being the "winner" at the Cannes Film Festival. Also, in another edition of Cult Movies magazine, there's a longer interview with Coe.

So that's the elusive "Hellborn" video. It's a must for the real fans of Ed Wood, and we know who we are. The takes from the main film are of interest. The footage of the Brooks film directed by Wood is great, and the interview footage with a dying Coe is priceless.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Bela Lugosi takes on Mother Riley through the newspaper ads


"Bela Lugosi versus Old Mother Riley," known in the United Kingdom as "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire," and 11 years later, as "My Son the Vampire" in the United States, has had a reputation as being a film that barely received a U.S. release. That's not completely true. It did fail to be released here in the '50s as "Vampire Over London," although YouTube has prints with that title. The film was an odd bill for Americans with Bela co-starring with British music hall artist Arthur Lucan playing his signature role. It had British references that would befuddle American audiences.

But as "My Son the Vampire," with an Allan Sherman song, it played second bill to a wide variety of films, including "nudie cuties" such as Merle Connell's "Not Tonight, Henry." (See above). A review I published in this blog is copied below: (Note the wide variety of top-heading films it was paired with. It even supported "Dr. Strangelove ...," as well as part of "Monsterama" multi showings).


LUGOSI'S FINAL BRITISH FILM ... is BETTER than many claim. In fact, it's the final film Bela Lugosi made where he looked healthy and in charge of the production. Its main weakness is that it's a unique bit of very low-brow British comedy that was popular from the 20s to the early 1950s. "Old Mother Riley" was an ugly, cockney, ignorant widow (played by actor Arthur Lucan in drag) who muddled herself into various ridiculous situations, dragging around her fatherless daughter, Kitty, played by Lucan's wife, Kitty McShane.


Lucan and McShane gained a reputation in music halls within the British provinces. They made a string of "Mother Riley" films that earned small profits in England but were not released in the U.S. By 1952, the series was about kaput, and Lucan and his wife were separated. Renown Pictures, which was producing Mother Riley films, noted the success of "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," and used a Renown executive, Richard Gordon, to get Lugosi to make "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Gordon, a friend of Lugosi, had arranged a Dracula stage tour for Lugosi in England. For $5,000, Lugosi, well past his prime, was eager to make the film.


The plot involves Mother Riley getting her mail mixed up with a mad scientist named Von Housen (Lugosi) who thinks he's a vampire. Mother Riley gets a killer robot, Von Housen gets a bed warmer. Von Housen uses the robot to kidnap Mother Riley and take her to his mad scientist house, with sinister servants and secret passageways, etc. Von Housen, delighted to find out Mother Riley has his favorite blood type, serves her lots of rare beef and liver. Von Housen, also seeking uranium to build more robots, has kidnapped a young lovely (Maria Mercedes) and her boyfriend. The girl's dad apparently knows where to find uranium, or something.

It's often not too clear because this movie is not really a Lugosi film. It's a showcase for Lucan's manic Mother Riley, with her rapid dialect that is hard for Americans to understand. Lugosi plays well in the film. As he did in every film, he gave it his all. Lucan's humor is very corny and provincial. The final half of the film is comprised of Mother Riley trying to get the cops to believe her, a battle with the robot, and a wild chase through London. As many critics have mentioned, "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" fails because it makes the bad guys, the "monsters," look ridiculous. "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" succeeds because the monsters stay scary, and only the comedy stars do comedy. The director of the film was John Gilling, who later directed better films, including Hammer's "Plague of the Zombies." The role of a helpful maid, that might have gone to Lucan's estranged wife, Kitty McShane, was instead played by Dora Bryan, who later gained a measure of fame as a serious actress.

(The above two ads are from the July 14, 1964 Tucson, Ariz., Daily Citizen, researched by my friend David Grudt.) Gordon tried to pitch the film in the U.S. as "Vampire Over London," but there were no buyers. Lucan's Mother Riley act was too unique to British provinces for the U.S. market. Gordon also considered taking out all Mother Riley scenes and shooting new scenes with Lugosi for a film called "King Robot," but Lugosi's soon-declining health killed that idea.


In the early 60s, it was eventually released as "My Son the Vampire," with comedy singer Allan Sherman singing a song with that nonsensical title in the opening credits. That version, which omits a dark Lugosi chuckle at the beginning as well as the actor's screen credit, is what is sold in the U.S. today and plays on Turner Classic Movies. The original British version, which might be interesting for Lugosi completists, is available at Tubi. Sinister Cinema sells a print with the little-used "Vampire Over London" title. The credits at least include Lugosi's name, although there is no Lugosi chuckle.

I am indebted to my friend Grudt for finding this cool ad (below) from the Guardian London, Great London England newspaper of Sept. 18, 1952. It shows the film by its real title, "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire," and that it plays with a Joseph Cotton film. Also below, Grudt has researched an Oct. 27, 1951 snippet from The San Francisco Examiner notes that Lugosi in London preparing to shoot "Old (sic) Mother Riley Meets the Vampire."


A footnote: For many years a myth endured that Lugosi's 1952 British Dracula stage tour failed and the actor and his wife were left stranded and broke in London. The myth further states that he made "Old Mother Riley ..." just so he and his wife could have transportation fare to return home. That myth is still repeated in books and on Web sites. It's completely untrue. As authors Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks recount in their book, "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," the Dracula tour provided steady work for Lugosi -- who enjoyed good reviews -- in England for several months. It played the English provinces and suburbs of London. Its only failing was that it was not of enough overall quality to make the West End, Britain's Broadway. The "Old Mother Riley" film was in fact a bonus for Lugosi, a nice windfall -- he and his wife had already earned enough money to easily make it back to the states. Today, the film, under its "My Son the Vampire" title often airs on the retro Movies channel, usually in the early AM hours.