By Jose Cruz
Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973). Directed by: Richard Blackburn. Starring: Cheryl Smith, Lesley Taplin, Richard Blackburn, William Whitton.
Vampiric godmothers. Lost princesses. Haunted forests. Genetic mutations. Singing crones. Ghoulish children. Ancient gods.
Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) is truly one of the great melting-pot films of midnight cinema, but what separates this strangely beautiful, still-underseen production from others of its kind is the manner in which its heady mashing of Weird fiction, fairy tales, mythology, and Biblical allegory combines to create a darkly poetic fable on the terrors of adolescence and growing up.
The brainchild of UCLA graduates Richard Blackburn and Robert Fern, Lemora was originally meant to cash in on the proven success of economic drive-in fare such as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), never intended to be more than merely a door into the world of profitable filmmaking for its creators. In spite of this, Lemora has all the hallmarks of a passion project for Blackburn, who directed the picture and co-wrote the script with Fern, plucking as it does from the tree of Blackburn’s youth as a boy with a fondness for spooky bedtime stories and a complex relationship with religion.
That Lemora should mark Blackburn and Fern’s only production to see the light of day seems a rather dismal turn of events. (Blackburn’s only other creative credits include writing and directing the “Miss May Dusa” episode of Tales from the Darkside and co-scripting Eating Raoul (1982) with Paul Bartel.) But in a way, this is entirely befitting of Lemora. It is the kind of film that leaves an indelible, dreamy impression on the viewer’s mind; it seems unlikely that whatever movie followed it could possibly have made an impact quite matching the bottled-lightning potency of its antecedent.
Virtuous Lila Lee (Cheryl “Rainbeux” Smith), charge of the local reverend (Richard Blackburn) and the daughter of a notorious gangster (William Whitton) on the lam for gunning down his cheating wife and her lover, receives a letter from a mysterious figure named Lemora (Lesley Taplin) beseeching her to come to the town of Asteroth where her father is laid up to forgive him his transgressions. (Unfortunate that Lila’s Bible studies should make no mention of the Crowned Princes of Hell.) Seeking to go the way of the good Christian, Lila leaves the Reverend and sets out on her mission.
The duplicity of Lila’s world is illustrated in the moral code of fairy tales from the film’s start. People who assume the shape of heaven-minded sheep are in fact devilish wolves in disguise. The women who make up the Reverend’s congregation are stirred by his sermons, yet cast their eyes downward at the mention of the vicious gossip that spreads through their town, while the Reverend himself struggles with lustful thoughts for his ripening charge. (In a telling visual metaphor, a shot of Lila dressing in her room is overlaid with the Biblical scripture the Reverend tries reading to quell his desires.) The town’s canine appetites are echoed later upon Lila’s arrival in Asteroth when she encounters Lemora’s subjects, dark-garbed vampires who bark like hungry hounds.
In true cautionary tale tradition, Lila the Pure Youth is barraged with the evils of the grown-up world from the second she steps outside the doors of her cloistered home. As a Southern ballad about a young runaway plays on the soundtrack, Lila encounters a weathered old whore who leers at her from the window of a brothel, a random stranger who leers at her while peeing in a field, a bus attendant who leers at her over a box of proffered chocolates, and a drunken brute who takes time from beating his flirtatious wife out in the streets to leer at Lila and ask, “Lookin’ for a good time, girlie?”
As in the narratives of the Brothers Grimm and other folklorists, the heroine’s belief in the inherent good of her naïve fantasies is contrasted in the extreme with the realistic menaces of the world she inhabits, mainly through displays of sexual desire. The carnality that lurked subtly, and not-so-subtly, in the background of the classic fairy tales is brought to the fore in Lemora. Lila has no red hood, but her journey to womanhood is nonetheless marked by bloodshed: Her mother’s murder acts as a kind of sanguinary baptism that prepares her for the thorny road ahead. (Ironically, Cheryl Smith would later play Cinderella (with a set of heightened sexual powers!) in a skin-flick adaptation of the story.)
References to Weird fiction arise in certain names and motifs that crop up throughout the film. Lovecraft is given his due during the marble-eyed bus driver’s campfire story about Lila’s destination (“Those people … Oh, God, those people. Ain’t nobody like those people. That’s the way they look. They call it the Asteroth Look!”) that clearly references the diseased degenerates from the author’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” The transforming illness in Lemora doesn’t have the same consistency as Lovecraft’s fish-people, though; Some denizens of Asteroth look like puffy corpses in fright wigs, while others are closer to the Wolfman-in-clothes archetype made popular by Universal Studios.
Similarities to Mervyn Peake’s novella Boy in Darkness, an entry in the author’s Titus Groan saga, are also prevalent. The Boy of Peake’s story escapes the nightmarish monotony of his secular life, only to trade it in for a more phantasmagoric and insidious nightmare populated by weird animal hybrids, the Goats and Hyenas of Peake’s story exchanged for the porridge-faced beasts and howling Puritan vampires of Blackburn’s film.
In a more general sense, the name of the head vampire mistress, Lemora, bears a passing likeness to Carmilla, the eponymous predator from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s landmark novella. Though the connection is highly plausible — the film was made during a time when the lesbian-vampire trope was a hot property, with both legitimate and bastardized adaptations of Le Fanu’s story appearing on screens with some regularity — it’s also possible that Lesley Taplin’s character earned her namesake from Lamia, one of Zeus’s mistresses of myth who gained her moniker, the Greek word for “gullet,” from a rather disturbing proclivity of hers: devouring children.
This theory would seem to hold water given Lemora’s habit of preying on minors. The spirits of her blood-drained victims urge Lila away from the vampiress’ abode through the ghostly vestiges of their antique photos and diaries, a plot point that not only ties the film in with Arthur Machen’s The White People and its diary passages of a young girl describing her induction into a coven of witches, but famous fairy tales like “The Robber Bridegroom,” wherein a young maiden is warned away from imminent doom by past victims/survivors, filtering Lemora‘s script through a furious spin-cycle of influences.
This melding of myth and story is revived again in a bizarre moment when a heavily-rouged crone groans out the traditional Southern dirge, “All Skin and Bones,” to the imprisoned Lila, effectively acting as both a symbolic reference to the theme of aging and adulthood that makes up Lila’s entire journey and as a good ol’ fashioned, sleepover jump-scare when the crone ends the song with a cackling “Boo!”
In Blackburn’s film, Lemora acts as both Fairy Godmother and Wicked Queen to Lila, mirroring the Reverend in the manner she locks her little princess away in a chamber, and masks her hungers under a pretense of protection and wish fulfillment. Lemora also possesses a gaggle of adopted, undead children who follow her every step, ashen ghouls in garish gypsy costumes that mark her as some kind of perverse Peter Pan residing in a macabre Neverland.
Though Lemora exhibits all the classic trademarks of the vampire — such as fangs, blood-drinking and an aversion to holy relics — her true identity becomes difficult to peg towards the end. Appropriately, Lemora keeps to the shadows during significant moments in the film, her talks with Lila alluding to a grander, more mystical legacy than that of a Middle-European Nosferatu. Lemora tells Lila that the ceremony she will be put through originated in “the church that all the others came from,” hinting at a primal and ancient parentage that seems to intimate that Lemora is a kind of Great Old One or prehistoric chthonic spirit in human form. To further complicate matters, Lemora expresses a very Christ-like sentiment at one point when she tells Lila, “Come into my arms and free yourself of all guilt,” as she contradictorily casts away the girl’s golden cross.
But perhaps there is really no one true point of origin for Lemora. As she tells Lila herself, “I am whatever you want me to be.”
Lila’s journey to adulthood starts before she even meets Lemora. She exercises her first visible sign of independence by ditching the Reverend in a demonstration of her preference for moral right at the risk of personal safety. She’s forced into an impromptu driving lesson when the bus driver gets nibbled on by an Asteroth villager. The ceremony that Lila goes through has certain aspects that liken it to the rites of feminine passage. Though she starts out as a waif in braids and buckled shoes, Lila is able to let her hair down — literally — and shirk her modesty when she strips down for a bath administered by her new keeper. With Lemora around, Lila can wear decadent dresses and dance to strange music like it’s a fun weekend at Mom’s house, finally able to indulge in the baser pleasures that had been denied her. The communal wafers and wine she partook in as the “Singin’ Angel” of the Reverend’s church are traded in for the genuine product at Lemora’s place: gobs of raw meat and chalices filled with blood.
Lila’s final true act of maturation comes when she inadvertently kills her monstrously transformed father during a brawl, effectively bringing an end to his life and their relationship in one swift thrust. Once the sole reason for her journey, he is now left behind, an object in the rearview mirror. One can’t help but note the slight trace of disappointment in the creature’s voice as he grasps his mortal wound and asks, “Princess…?” He’s upset, not so much for the fact that he’s dying, as he is realizing that his little girl is all grown up.
By the film’s end, Lila has become a fully-fledged spirit of the night. Her new, powerful sexuality is too much to resist. The Reverend falters in the face of his reborn angel and responds to Lila’s overtures when he comes searching for her, sealing his doom.
It seems unlikely that a film with this literary pedigree and thematic resonance could have been fully realized on a budget of $20,000, but if anything, it’s this very aspect that gives Lemora its lasting effect. Lila envisions the threatening world around her as a child would: The creatures of the night are covered in loose fur and cracked, peeling makeup; the cost-cutting tactic of shooting day-for-night gives the “evening” scenes the purple-and-blue hues of mystery and magic; actors appearing in the early town scenes are recycled later in Asteroth, as if Lila were reusing the familiar faces of the human adults to make sense of the fantastic creatures she later encounters.
For all of this, Lemora, like many great movies, is not perfect. The blocking is ungainly in spots, the performances can tend towards the stilted, and the vagaries of the cast and crew’s relative inexperience show through at times. But for all of the movie’s apparent bruises, the shadowy and bizarre allure that it holds as a product of fiercely independent cinema is ever-present. Some might count this point as a detractor, but it only pushes the film further into the realm of chaotic, everything-but-the-kitchen sink inspiration.
Even when Lila exposes her bulging, dime-store fangs at the end of the film, the image still has disturbing power due to its sincerity, a sincerity that all of us possessed at one time when we were less jaded, less hardened by age, and when all that was needed to protect us from the forces of darkness was the expertly-timed pull of a blanket over our eyes. When we watch this film, we lie back and expose our necks to the goddess Lemora in hopes that she will lay her magic kiss upon us, if only so that we may remember what it was like to be a child and terrified once again.
Bio:Jose Cruz is a writer who lives on the Florida Gulf Coast with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books and movies. His other essays and interviews can be found at The Haunted Omnibus and bare•bones e-zine.