UPDATE, 2/22/17: Lemora plays at L.A.‘s Cinefamily theatre at midnight on Friday, 2/24 in a very rare 16mm screening. Click here for details.
I’m glad I saw Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural on DVD, where it has been given a pristine restoration, and where the midnight blues and sinful reds of the production design stand out with eye-popping luridness.
But part of me envies the people who have posted on imdb.com to describe how they first came across the film on the late, late show on their local TV station during the 1970s, and for years afterward wondered just what the hell that movie was. Murky, bowdlerized TV prints and all, a witching-hour encounter with Lemora where you know nothing about the film might be the ideal way to experience it.
This cult favorite among the lesbian vampire subgenre (actually, this particular niche of cinema might consist of nothing but cult favorites) received spotty theatrical distribution, under a variety of titles, first in 1973 and again in ’75. A persistent rumor that the film had been condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency presumably didn’t help matters. And then, apart from those scattered, late-night showings on TV in the late ‘70s, Lemora largely vanished for two decades, save from the minds of those few horror aficionados who had managed to see it back when. You could say that the movie’s ideal venue is a grindhouse cinema of the unconscious.
A horror flick like Lemora epitomizes the siren song of the B movie for susceptible genre buffs: In his feature debut, writer-director Richard Blackburn was clearly trying to overcome a low budget and limited technical resources. And yet the occasional crudeness of execution may be inextricable from the air of pulp poetry that comes and goes in the film — a weird, random, dreamlike atmosphere that dissolves into silliness from one moment to the next, and then back again. To oversell a movie like this is to miss the point. Call it a fine example of ashcan art, to borrow a term from another medium.
Set in a rural South of the 1930s that suggests a dark fairy tale, and drawing uncredited inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Shadow over Innsmouth,” Lemora depicts the plight of poor Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), a pious church singer barely in her teens who is lured into a remote, decaying mansion thinking that she is coming to aid her father, a gangster on the lam. Poor Lila doesn’t realize it’s a set-up: the mistress of the house, Lemora (Lesley Gilb) is a century-old vampire with sinister designs on sweet young Lila.
Lila comes to understand the extent of the evil surrounding her, and it’s too much for her. As she experiences a psychosexual meltdown in her head, the movie makes an abrupt left turn from a stately southern Gothic, told in more or less straightforward terms (low budget and all), and slow moving, by contemporary standards, to plunge into a fragmentary, hallucinatory head trip.
The filmmaking suddenly becomes correspondingly sharper and more original. Lemora makes the most of its last couple of minutes: Like dominoes the taboos fall, one after another. Alternately ludicrous and gripping as the film is, the last 10 minutes make the whole movie better in retrospect.
No spoilers here, but I strongly doubt that the ending — which can be read as atheistic, nihilistic or just provocatively ambiguous — would have ever made it into an American horror film prior to 1968, the year George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead shredded the rule book. The shocker of an ending reflects the movie’s early-‘70s moment, while also making the film feel more relevant to a modern audience.
In filmmaking, sincerity and ambition count for a lot — far more than budgets or technical resources, to this cineaste’s mind. The past decade has seen countless heavily hyped horror movies, opening on thousands of screens, week after week. The films have the benefits of CGI and budgets that are many times that of Lemora‘s, even allowing for inflation.
And yet, very few modern-day horror releases offer anything like the suggestiveness of Lemora. Cash poor but thematically rich, lovably low-budget Lemora takes its story of faith and damnation seriously.
Maybe Blackburn intended Lemora as a parable about adolescence, particularly female adolescence in the early 1970s. If it’s true the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the movie, perhaps it’s because the Legion understood the film’s ending too well: There’s a war for the souls of young people today, and you guys lost. It’s possible, though, to read the movie’s ending as a positive message: See ‘Is Lemora a coming-out story in vampire disguise?’