Saturday, January 26, 2008

Vampira goes home


Edward D. Wood Jr's Plan Nine From Outer Space is unquestionably the most famous bad movie of all time.
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It first came to prominence in the late seventies when it was hailed as the worst film ever made, and Wood the world's worst director, and it was only over time that a more respectful cult grew around it, saluting Wood's inventiveness, eccentricity and resourcefulness.
A tragic, tortured individual, he sadly lived long enough to witness the first wave of acclaim but not the second. One of his stars, Valda Hansen, recalled him saying: "Do you think I care if I'm a millionaire? No... what hurts me is the cruelty toward me... I'm only trying to do the best at what I feel. All this garbage I see, they praise. And me, they seem to love to deride me."

The man had a point. At a time in the nineteen-seventies when so much acclaim was being heaped on childish, utterly pretentious films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, what was so terrible about a few wobbling tombstones and super-intelligent aliens who write their plans for world domination on scruffy sheets of A4?
Looking back at that 'Golden Turkey' period, and thinking of Wood's final days - alcoholic, barely scraping a living, still proud of his films and desperate to make another - it does all seem unbelievably cruel. He did indeed do the best he could with what he had, and parts of his films really are triumphs of inspiration over an almost complete lack of resources. Of course, that does not make them good movies by any objective standard, but Wood was an eccentric who should have been treasured.

And as for Plan Nine itself, it seems to me that while later attempts to redress the injustice by hailing him as a genius and visionary are plainly ridiculous, the narrow-mindedness of the earlier mockery is equally blinkered.
The truth is that the film does have some things going for it, especially in its first half. Once the heroes are on board the spaceship - with its tatty curtains and Dudley Manlove shrieking "Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!" - the absurdity of the concept becomes insurmountable. But some of the earlier sequences are genuinely spooky if you catch them in the right frame of mind - that is to say with a wide-eyed child's kind of imagination, which was exactly the kind of imagination Wood possessed. There is a visual style unique to the film, and the library music score is entirely effective. (The famous main theme is in fact a Soviet hymn to industry: 'Iron Foundry' by the Russian composer Alexander Mossolov.)
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And the human presence that most instantly evokes and defines it - far more than Lugosi, far more than chiropractor Dr Tom Mason pretending to be Lugosi with a cape over his face, more even than the stumbling, massive Tor Johnson - is actress Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira, who died earlier this month at the age of eighty-six.
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In the film she plays Bela Lugosi's wife, ressurected from the dead by aliens whose plan to enslave the earth by reviving human corpses is so obscure and ill-considered one can only wonder what their first eight plans were like. She is never named: Vampira is how she is billed as actress rather than character. The notion of a zombie being played by a woman called Vampira is in fact one of the subtler oddities that proliferate in Wood's universe.
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'Vampira' was originally a character Nurmi created for television, a role in which she could provide on-screen introductions to late-night horror shows. Unlike her mute, scary turn in Plan Nine, she was flirty and fun. The look she invented - tight black dress, long black hair, arched eyebrows and odd mix of skittishness and predatory allure, kind of like Veronica Lake's evil twin - was inspired in part by the famous Charles Addams cartoons but predates by years Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family, Yvonne de Carlo in The Munsters, Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming and all those other variations on the same basic formula.
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Wood's stars tend to fall into two categories: those that loved him, loved his films, appeared in several of them and hung out with him between pictures, and those who somehow found themselves roped in and couldn't believe the ants-nest of weirdoes, derelicts, has-beens and freaks into which they had landed. Chief among the latter has always been Plan Nine's hero, Greg Walcott, who has frequently scorned the notion that Wood was a frustrated artist, and opined that even with a big studio's resources he still would have made the same film. (His exact words were: "He had no taste. Even if he had ten million dollars it would have been a piece of tasteless shit.")
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Surprisingly, perhaps, Nurmi belonged to this latter category. Her entry into Wood's world came about through necessity rather than choice. The way she told it, she was being courted by all the major studios when she first heard that Wood was interested in signing her, and openly scorned the idea. But then she was blacklisted, and accepted Wood's offer in desperation when all other avenues had been closed to her.
According to her she was paid 200 dollars for a day's work, and travelled to and from the studio in full make-up on the bus.
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Rarely has screen immortality begun so humbly, for there is no doubt that a huge part of the film's enduring status is attributable to her role and her presence.
Plot-wise she is an utter mystery. All that the aliens are supposed to have done is make some corpses rise from their graves, and we are expected to believe that she is the wife of a rather elderly and conventional man, played by Lugosi. So to what are we expected to attribute her extraordinary appearance? Why was she buried in that incredible costume? What's with the make-up? Who cares? She looks sensational. For most of my teenage years this was exactly the girl I wanted on my arm.
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Her first appearances, if one thinks of them purely as cinema with no regard to the story Wood is supposedly telling (which seems to be the way Wood thought most of the time), are gorgeous little pieces of film. Wood cuts to that tiny, minimalist grave set, jet-black save for a tomb, a single wizened tree and some wisps of fog in the extreme foreground. Slowly, from behind the tomb, she emerges, her arms held rigid but not straight, twisted at odd angles, shaking slightly as if palsied. Staring directly at us, she moves slowly but not gracefully, in odd, lurching spurts of movement. It is intercut with location shots of the two gravediggers (one of them producer J Edward Reynolds, a baptist who put up most of the money on the condition that the entire cast be baptised in a swimming pool) and the match is hopeless: they are in dusk on location, she in impenetrable, inky, studio blackness.

The effect is hard to describe but unforgettable to watch, and I'm aware that one can oversell it as much as undersell it... obviously it's not really scary and it makes no sense as drama... but purely on the level of imagery it is really quite beautiful.

Most of her sequences are variations on this set-up, walking either to the camera or away from it on this single cramped set, sometimes her face blank and placid, sometimes contorted in an evil sneer. On one memorable occasion we see her walking away from us in her fantastic dress, a tight belt around her tiny waist, before half-turning her head and looking directly at us with one eye.

Just imagine what her home-life with Lugosi had been like! The only reference we get implies complete domestic harmony: against poignant footage of Lugosi shot shortly before his death, narrator Criswell (a non-psychic psychic who predicted entire cities of homosexuals in America and an inter-planetary convention before the end of the twentieth century) intones typically purple, incomprehensible Ed Wood prose:
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The grief of his wife's death became greater and greater agony. The home they had so long shared together became a tomb, a sweet memory of her joyous living. The sky to which she had once looked was now only a covering for her dead body.
The ever-beautiful flowers she had planted with her own hands became nothing more than the lost roses of her cheeks.
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Like so much else, perhaps everything else, about this film, the words are meaningless, crazed, hopelessly self-contradicting - yet oddly effective, strangely haunting.
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In later years, Nurmi seemed happily resigned to the fact that Plan Nine was her ticket to immortality, and spoke affectionately of Wood and the times they spent promoting the movie. Interviewed by Rudolph Grey for his generous and fascinating oral history of Wood's life and work Nightmare of Ecstasy she told of her most recent business venture: selling Hollywood celebrity grave rubbings by mail order.
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AND... I've only just learned that Yvonne de Carlo died last year, too; somehow the news got past me until now. A beautiful starlet in forties tosh, westerns and exotica (Salome Where She Danced, Frontier Gal, Slave Girl) and wife of Moses in The Ten Commandments, she will be remembered above all for the role of Lily Munster, which she accepted reluctantly and never quite came to terms with. She knew that The Munsters, rather than any of her starring movies, would unquestionably be her legacy, and the fact bemused her somewhat, but she appreciated the renewed popularity it brought her with successive generations of children.

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