Mar 12, 2012

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

 The idea of a mid-1970s PG-rated vampire flick about a young girl usually seems like a less than tempting prospect, but after hearing much underground praise for the film Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) aka Lemora: The Lady Dracula aka The Legendary Curse of Lemora directed by Richard Blackburn, I finally decided to suck it up and give the film a fair and serious viewing after having a copy of the work in my possession for over a year. Lemora is probably one of the best reasons as to why one should not judge a film by its rating and marginality, as it proved to be one of the most truly virtuoso vampire flicks I have had the luxury to see and one of the most uniquely American ‘horror’ films ever made. Taking critical inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft (The Shadow Over Innsmouth), Arthur Machen (The White People), Mervyn Laurence Peake (Boy in Darkness), film noir, and the more unadorned aspects of 20th century American history, Lemora is a splendidly unrivaled Southern Gothic set in the depression era American south. After seeing the relative success of Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) directed by Bob Kelljan, Lemora director Richard Blackburn (rightfully) felt confident that he could direct a superior horror film due to his somewhat uncommon literate understanding of the horror story, especially those written by the likes of Lovecraft. Sticking to the southern tradition of honoring family history, Blackburn’s paternal confederate ancestry would also be a crucial inspiration on the pleasantly peculiar atmosphere and themes of country fried grit, bastardized backwoods Baptist Christianity, and downright unholy repression-based perversions that are featured throughout the film. On top of providing his ½ Yankee son with inspirational stories about real-life country yokels who don’t take kindly to strangers in their towns, Richard’s father C.V. Blackburn also acted as executive producer for Lemora and even played a small role in the film as a seemingly drunken man urinating in public. Richard Blackburn, himself, would also play the imperative role of the Reverend; a somewhat dubious religious leader who acts as a surrogate father to the child lead Lila Lee (played by the already adult age Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith). 

Despite her maturity in real-life, no better person was born to play the role of 13-year-old Lila Lee in Lemora than Cheryl Smith. Nowadays, Smiths is best known for her roles in a variety of cult films (Caged Heat, Phantom of the Paradise, Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke) and playing drums with alpha-dyke musician Joan Jett. Horror films are well known for their glaring lack of sufficient and believable acting, yet Cheryl Smith, with her truly sad and ‘damaged’ facial expressions, lent a certain authenticity to Lemora that is central to the driving emotional and visceral potency of the film. Lesley Gilb, who plays the nazi chic lesbian vampiress Lemora with unconventional witch attributes, also adds a exigent ingredient to the film as she acts as the perfect antithesis to the innocence of little lady Lila Lee, both in personality and physique. While Lila is a humble and thoroughly chaste girl with angelic blonde hair and a pleasantly petite body, Lemora is a domineering vamp with a tall stature and dark features (aside from her corpse-like skin) who does not take no for an answer, whether it be from a man, monster, or child.  Lemora has a collection of loyal undead children and hopes to coherence Lila into joining her ferocious foster family by using a variety of somewhat subtle erotically driven compliments such as, "what an exciting figure you have." The male characters featured in Lemora range from degenerate criminals to active scumbags to potential molesters, yet most of the women are puritanically dressed Baptist lemmings who swoon for the handsome charlatan Reverend. Lila’s father is a well dressed, pudgy gangster who did the unspeakable act of killing his wife/daughter's mother, hence why the lonely girl was adopted by the good Reverend. The Reverend himself even seems to have a hard time keeping his hands off of Lila’s little lily, but through the imagined power of the lord and misinterpreting religious texts, he seems to mostly persevere, at least for most of the film. During the beginning of Lemora, Lila is summoned by her apparently dying father (under false pretenses) to meet him in the decaying feral town of Astaroth where everyone has some degree of the degenerative Lovecraftian “Astaroth look.” On route, Lila’s bus is attacked by barbaric lycanthropic-like vampires and is intern saved and imprisoned by the beautiful yet endlessly cunning Lemora who therein throws the young girl into a phantasmagorical tribulation where the line between reality and dreams has been illustriously ripped apart at the seams. 

Lemora, not unlike Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) directed by Jaromil Jireš and The Reflecting Skin (1990) directed by Philip Ridley, is an ominous coming-of-age flick that – while too scary, sexualized, and incoherent for the typical child (and a number of prudish adults) to view – does manages to recapture the wonder and hopeless bewilderment of childhood. As a longtime cynic, skeptic, and misanthrope (even as a prepubescent child), I was even able to tap into my “inner-child” via Lemora. In fact, I was so surprised by the impact the film had on me that I re-watched Lemora two more times the day after my initial viewing just to make sure I was not in a state of random hypnotic derangement during the night before. Seeing Lemora was the closest I have come to recapturing the singularly penetrating and totally unpredictable experience I had while randomly watching Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) late one night on cable television for the first time when I was about ten years old. Lemora is one of few American horror films that has managed to combine stark surrealism, taboo religious themes, traditional horror elements, vintage Americana, and unpretentious artsy in a work that stands alone in terms of originality and sheer quality of pure entertainment. The fact that Lemora is not as well known nor as highly revered (by fans and critics alike) as films like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) is nothing short of a testament to the peasant-like philistinic tastes of artistically-disinterested American audiences.  Although some believe the obscurity of Lemora is the result of the film being banned by the Catholic League of Decency, director Richard Blackburn has voiced (on the audio commentary of the Synapse Films release of the film) that such claims are nothing short of hearsay as he has never received any form of formal notification from the organization. Thankfully, at least the French – the people who essentially invented film theory and have consistently esteemed film as a legitimate art form – have long respected Lemora as piece of exceptionally crafted cinematic design.  After all, Erich von Stroheim did not spend his remaining days in France for nothing.

Lemora seems to be an all around cursed production of sorts as not only did the film fall into the unfortunate realm of uncertainty after a limited run of theatrical distribution, but the two lead actresses of the film would also meet grim fates. Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, who was apparently high on painkillers throughout the production of Lemora, died in late 2002 at the age of 47 after suffering complications from liver disease and hepatitis due to a calamitous two decade addiction to heroin, which also resulted in two prison sentences and the total disintegration of her acting career. Of course, Smith was not as innocent on the real-life set of Lemora as her character seems in the movie as she apparently bragged to the film crew that she gave Dick Blackburn a bulging boner during their kissing scene; a claim the bashful director wholly denies. Lesley Gilb (aka Lesley Taplin), whose acting career unfortunately all but ended after her excellent performance as the title character in Lemora, died tragically in a car accident on highway 101 in Los Angeles, California in 2009 at the age of 62. Aside from a brief period of critical acclaim for co-writing the script for Paul Bartel’s black comedy Eating Raoul (1982) and penning a couple episodes for the George A. Romero produced anthology horror TV series Tales From the Darkside (1983-1988), Lemora director Richard Blackburn’s filmmaking career was also cut prematurely short. Still, few filmmakers can boast that they have assembled a work as gorgeously quaint, exemplar, and full of artistic integrity as Lemora, and for that alone, Mr. Blackburn deserves much praise. The film is a virtual confederate haunted house amusement ride in film form that never falls into banality and calculated clichés, nor preposterous pretensions, but provides the viewer with an incomparable time of very real predatory pedophilic monsters, as well as those of the imaginary bloodsucking sort.  By the conclusion of Lemora, the viewer will probably question whether or not Lila's experiences were the product of reality or her dreams, which is indubitably one of the greatest strengths of a fundamentally anarchic primordial film of ceaseless ambiguity where nothing is as it seems.

-Ty E


Phantom of Pulp said...

This is a stunningly good review/discussion of LEMORA, one of my favorites of all time. Truly chilling, erotic, bizarre, and subversive, it is one-of-a-kind, even as far as the vampire genre goes. The bus ride is one of the most uneasy sequences ever committed to celluloid, and Smith's scene with the ticket seller is beyond good for me.

Would make an excellent double feature with the wonderful MESSIAH OF EVIL.

Thank you for this well-deserved poem to Blackburn's classic. I once met Blackburn and was able to tell him how much I enjoyed his masterpiece.

I would watch anything by this man.

Soiled Sinema said...

Phantom: Thank you for the kind words!

Also, thanks for the recommendation in regard to "Messiah of Evil." I have been questioning for sometime whether or not I should watch the film, but now I plan to watch it asap.

It is awesome that you got to meet Richard Blackburn. When I realized that the Reverend was also the director, I was quite stunned as "Lemora" is such a mature film that I was surprised a guy that young (and a first time director at that!) had directed it.

-Ty E

665+1 said...

Going to have to second 'Messiah of Evil' - it also achieves a nocturnal, nigh-Lovecraftian vibe, granted without the poignancy of this undervalued masterpiece.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith (as the bird was in 1973 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously, which is dead). What an incredible bird she was back in those days, absolutely amazing.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Its true, "Messiah of Evil" is a cult-item par-excellence and theres 3 gorgeous birds in it as well: Marianna Hill (WOW), Joy Bang ! ! ! (WOW), and Anitra Ford (WOW). By the way, its freely available to watch on Youtube so that`ll save you another $3 on an unneccessary DVD.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Yes, Blackburn was quite young when he directed it, and what a fine film he produced.

I'm very eager to read your review of MESSIAH. I wrote one yonks ago, too, but not with your critical depth.

Three films for a great "Faith" triple: MESSIAH, LEMORA, and ALICE SWEET ALICE.

U.O. said...

Good review. Also check out "Valerie and her Week of Wonders", another child film with similar atmosphere.