In 1953, Maila Nurmi attended a Hollywood costume ball as the Morticia Adams character from the New Yorker cartoons, hoping she could convince an executive to make a television program based on the Adams Family. Ahead of her time (it would take ABC another 10 years to finally make that program), Nurmi still captured the attention of a producer, but he didn’t want her to star as Mortician Adams; rather, he asked her to host late-night horror movies, and she created a new character, a glamour ghoul with a wicked sense of humor named Vampira. Once a well-known figure, Vampira is sadly now most notorious for her brief appearance in a b-movie she hated (Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space), followed by Nurmi’s lawsuit with 80s late-night horror hostess Elvira over the use of her likeness (it was determined by a court that Elvira was just a close resemblance). However, Vampira’s television work has always had a cult following of devotees, including documentarian R.H. Greene, who befriended Nurmi in the 1990s and conducted an interview with her about her life and career. After recent archival discoveries, Greene finally decided to make a film about his friend, combining archival footage and stills of Vampira herself, that interview, audio interviews with others who knew her, and era-related images and video. Together, Vampira and Me is a loving, fitting tribute to an extraordinary and fascinating woman.
But calling Vampira and Me a documentary might be giving the wrong impression, at least in regards to how most think of a documentary about a once-living person. Instead, Vampira and Me should probably be thought of as an artful homage made to a loved one. Yes, Vampira uses archival footage and narration to document a notable person, but in a very selective, protective way, painting her as both hero and victim, often both simultaneously, which some documentarians might take issue with. That’s not to say the film is without merit – in fact, it’s probably a far better film than something that might have been made by an outsider – but it should be understood where the film comes from. Everything is from Nurmi’s perspective, and when individuals are made to look like villains, they aren’t given the chance to explain their sides. Put together by Greene in a stylized way that only focuses on the film’s subject, this is the story of the feisty, iconoclastic Vampira. It turns out her story has been neglected for far too long, and it clearly deserved to be told.
Juan of the Dead (Cuba, Spain 2011 – 94 minutes – Director: Alejandro Brugués)
A Cuban zombie comedy, I walked into Juan of the Dead expecting a Cuban version of Shawn of the Dead, but despite the similarity in title and comedic nature, it’s actually a very different film. When the undead take to the streets of Havana, most Cubans flee the overrun island in homemade boats, but a small ragtag band of zombie slayers stay behind, not only trying to survive the apocalypse but also make some money in the process. Blending horror and comedy with plenty of political and zombie-movie references, writer/director Alejandro Brugués aspires to make something both entertaining and thought-provoking. But while some really great ideas are present, such as a hilarious dance sequence between a zombie and a living person handcuffed together, not everything is as effectively executed as others, with a few gags going on for too long or simply falling flat. Campy, gory and satirical, Juan should still play well to late-night audiences who are used to ignoring a few flaws in their search for outrageous laughs.
Pincus (U.S.A. 2012 – 79 minutes – Director: David Fenster)
A semi-autobiographical film about a slacker named Pincus who is supposed to be taking care of his ailing father, Pincus director David Fenster decided to combine a script he was working on about a man’s self discovery with his own father’s real-life struggle with Parkinson’s. The result is not only painfully self-indulgent, but it also makes Fenster look like a bit of a douchebag if he’s anything like his lead character. The son of an established and reputable contractor, Pincus takes over the family business, signing up for projects only to neglect them. His only “worker” onsite an alcoholic German friend whom he allows to live in the work sites, Pincus seems set on sabotaging the only lifeline he will have once his father is gone. In addition to abandoning his professional responsibilities, he leaves his father for extended periods without someone to look after him, which is only slightly worse than when he tries to be a good son. When Pincus actually spends time with his father, he’s either yelling at him as if he’s a child or subjecting him to random new-age treatments suggested by his yoga teacher, whose class he takes only because he is hoping to sleep with her. But the lead character isn’t the only thing annoying about this film. The heinous sound quality of the overly loud soundtrack is headache inducing, and the trying-to-be-artsy, open-ended conclusion has no place in such an aimless, artless film. Plus, the use of Fenster’s real ailing father feels like a gimmick in extremely bad taste. Poorly made, narcissistic and arguably exploitative, I can’t imagine Pincus meaning anything to anyone other than those involved.