Monday, October 5, 2009

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

The time is the 1930's, in the rural, Prohibition-era American South. Shy, thirteen-year old Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), ward of the young reverend (played by director Richard Blackburn) goes in search of her gangster father, who is a fugitive from the law after having shot Lila's mother to death. Little does she realize that the letter summoning her on this dangerous trip to the remote, spectral town of Astaroth-- where her father has taken refuge, apparently near death--was authored by the mysterious recluse Lemora, who is merely using Lila's father in order to take possession, body and soul, of Lila Lee herself.

Lila Lee's odyssey begins when, trying to get to the bus-station to get a ticket to Astaroth, she stows away on a car going into town, and overhears the local gossip about the Reverend's less-than-puritanical designs on her. Lila Lee is further harried by scenes of corruption and debauchery in town before finding out that the only bus to Astaroth is driven by a bizarre little man with a mildly deranged manner (the somewhat overdoing-it Hy Pyke), and she's the only passenger. During the ride, the driver warns Lila Lee about the dark reputation of Astaroth, complete with the distinctive monstrous attributes (dubbed the "Astaroth Look") of it's inhabitants, tearing a page from H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Unfortunately for Lila Lee, she soon gets to see the dreaded "Astaroth look" first-hand, as the bus breaks down and the two are swarmed by a pack of feral vampire-creatures. Lila Lee escapes only by being abducted by some other less horrifyic "civilized" Astaroth-ites who wear cowboy hats and turtle-necks for some reason. These vampires drive away the others and kill a few with stakes to the heart, and Lila Lee wakes up the next day in a padlocked stone hovel, illuminated only by sunlight though a barred window and tended to by a creepy old woman (the Renfield to Lemora's Dracula) who seems to be out of her mind. Lemora finds out that this cell is on the property of the woman who wrote the letter appealing for Lila Lee to come there, alone, to meet with her father, and that, far from being his protector Lemora has him captive, along with Lila Lee and others. After Lila Lee nearly escapes she meets Lemora, a strange woman with dark eyes, an unnatural complexion and funereal 19th century clothing. Lemora brings Lila Lee into her stark old manor and forces her to eat raw meat and blood for sustanance. In spite of being subjected to this and other indignities, Lila Lee begins to grow closer to Lemora. Lila Lee quickly comes around to the ominous reality, however, that Lemora, her henchmen and the gaggle of strange, laughing children that Lemora treats as her own are all vampires. More, Lila Lee is attacked by her own father who, as one of the savage feral vampires, is driven away by Lemora, banished to the woods where
the other feral vampires run berserk. Lila Lee escapes again, only to find herself pursued by the "wild" vampires that Lemora's vampires hunt like animals. Before long these vampires clash in a climactic battle for supremacy, in which Lila Lee is seemingly caught in the middle.

Written and directed by Richard (Eating Raoul) Blackburn, Lemora would be the young film student's only feature film, owing largely to the movies poor reception among American audiences of the time. Though a monumental career setback for Blackburn, his ambitious little independent genre production was rewarded with some recognition, mostly by European film critics, as well as a small cult-following from Americans who caught it on late-night movie-of-the-week broadcasts (for me, that was Shock Theater). Out on Synapse DVD in a remastered special edition, Lemora can now be enjoyed with a pristine picture, far surpassing the inky, nearly unwatchable, incarnations previously seen on cable and VHS. The clarity of the DVDs picture does, unfortunately, reveal many of the rough edges of the woefully low-budget. When I saw Lemora on Shock Theater as a kid, I always wondered what the creatures pursuing Lila Lee in the woods, the ones making the horrifying guttural beast-noises, actually looked like. What my imagination cooked up was a little freakier than what can clearly be seen now, but considering the financial limitations (Blackburns cast and crew were primarily friends and family) the home-made make-up effects (including plastic Halloween vampire fangs) don't detract too much from from what was, after all, a laudable experimental work that hardly launched any of those involved to stardom.

The late Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith did go on to appear in a slew of exploitation films in the seventies and early eighties (Caged Heat, The Pom-Pom Girls, and the ilk), wherever a freckly, buxom, translucent blonde was called for, but few were starring roles and only a couple of those appear to have required serious acting skills. Smith turned in an unusually restrained performance as Lila Lee, apparently not seeing the character as being easily unnerved. Smith's performance is eerily remote, almost somnambulic. It reminds me a little of Candace Hilligoss' wandering spirit in Carnival of Souls. It can be argued that Smith was no Jodie Foster, but on the DVD's commentary director Blackburn asserts that though he pushed her to exhibit more emotion in key scenes, he was glad, viewing the film today, that Smith had resisted the his direction to make Lila Lee the "screamy" type. It may be that Smith struggled with the characterization as it was. Here was a streetwise sixteen-year-old California woman playing an innocent, gospel-singing girl of thirteen, after all, and Cheryl even had to have her breasts taped down under her clothing so that her true maturity wouldn't be so obvious.

The performance choice for the eponymous Lemora (Lesley Gilb) was also a bit curious. The character comes across as a shrill photo-phobic schoolmarm, begging to be defied. For an age-old vampire who preys on children, you'd think that she'd have developed a more winning personality to help soften her severe, staring countenance.

Lemora isn't necessarily an engrossing, genre-defining movie but it's nicely textured and evokes a suitably spooky dreamscape atmosphere with a slightly off-kilter dramatic sensibility. Rather than going for sheerly exploitative thrills, as was the trend of the genre market of the day, Blackburn produced more of an art film with a European flavor. Though the lesbian overtones that vampire flicks of the seventies were lousy with are present, there is little erotic about Lemora's strained, awkward seduction of Lila Lee. Blackburn indicates that the film is about sexual repression at the core. The Reverend represses his indecent desires for Lila Lee, who is in turn forced to veil her desires as a young woman coming of age. This repression presumably contributes to their ultimate fates--grim or liberating, depending on your own particular interpretation.


Will Errickson said...

Great write-up; I felt much the same way about it.

Steve Ring said...