Is the 1970s horror flick ‘Lemora’ a coming-out story in vampire disguise?

Keepin' it clean: Lesley Gilb as Lemora and Cheryl Smith as Lila (l-r). Copyright Synapse Films.

Let me help you with that: Lesley Gilb as Lemora and Cheryl Smith as Lila (l-r). © Copyright Synapse Films.

Midway through Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, innocent young Lila (Cheryl Smith) still hasn’t cottoned on that dark-eyed lady of the manor Lemora (Lesley Gilb) is a vampire. Sweet, dim Lila lets the older mystery woman give her a bath in an old wooden washtub, in the scene that no doubt gives Lemora its “erotic” reputation.

I vant to suck your blood, or something

She’s gotta have it: Lesley Gilb as Lemora. © Copyright Synapse Films.

Here the subtext of The Bloodlust That Dare Not Speak Its Name just about becomes overt; the film never explicitly identifies Lemora as lesbian, but it doesn’t really need to. We can see how in her haughty undead way she’s all hot and bothered by having Lila undress and crouch in the tub, her neck a tempting target but for that damned crucifix that she refuses to take off.

To contemporary eyes the scene is remarkably demure: director Richard Blackburn films his lead actress (who was underage, but that’s another story), with great discretion, and you could play the whole scene on network TV today without even trimming a single shot. Lead actress Cheryl Smith has in fact been so covered up in her shapeless ankle-length dresses that when Lemora tells Lila, “What an exciting figure you have,” the line comes off as a non sequitur. What figure?

caged heat

Cheryl Smith as Lila Lee. © Copyright Synapse Films.

What’s funny is that since its initial, PG-rated release Lemora has gained a rep for being kinky and titillating; even the capsule description on the movie’s Netflix page kicks off with “In this weirdly erotic film….” (I wonder how many “Move to Top of Queue” clicks that intro has inspired.) Online commentary about the movie indicates that guys who came across it in the 1970s were driven out of their minds by this scene. Chalk it up to the power of suggestiveness: It’s entirely possible that whenever people thought back to their long-ago viewing of Lemora, they remembered seeing far more than what they actually saw.

And perhaps an attempted lesbian seduction was comparatively novel for horror fans in 1973 — these unsuspecting moviegoers wandered into the theatre and their heterosexual-male brains were overwhelmed by the hint of vamp-on-waif action. (Nowadays, of course, a kiss between actresses is passé; it has been a cheesy attention-getting device on network TV for years.) Another possibility is that a subset of female viewers, assuming there were any, were drawn in by Lemora’s rubdown of Lila. (These women would have been just making do until the arrival of The Hunger 10 years later.)

Fox on the run: Cheryl Smith as Lila. Copyright Synapse Films.

Fox on the run: Cheryl Smith as Lila. © Copyright Synapse Films.

I would bet what made the biggest impression on these viewers was a bit of horseplay when Lemora dries Lila off; Cheryl Smith wakes out of her stoner’s somnolence to flash a smile for the first time, and there’s a moment of chemistry between the two actresses. I watched Lemora as a freelance Movie Analyst, so I viewed all of this with complete professional detachment, of course. The lesbian subtext (if that’s the word) posed an interesting question for my analysis: Did the movie deserve to be categorized under “Gay and Lesbian Interest”? Since virtually everything ever written about Lemora dwells on this aspect of the story, I went with “Yes.”

Lesley Gilb as Lemora. Copyright Synapse Films.

Lesley Gilb as Lemora. © Copyright Synapse Films.

The subtext is again made overt when Lemora leads Lila to bed, telling her a story about a girl who couldn’t accept “what she really was,” until she came to this mansion; Lila understands that Lemora is talking about herself (though, interestingly, she still doesn’t know Lemora’s a vampire), but Lemora means for the story to refer to both of them. Lemora tucks Lila into bed, and the girl dozes off.

From the age of groovy movie postersAfter watching Lemora, I mused that “Coming Out” could easily be a plausible candidate for one of the storylines I had to list as part of my analysis. Maybe this isn’t a story of damnation, but rather self-realization, and the ending isn’t dark at all. It’s no stretch to say that Lemora, like virtually every vampire tale ever written, uses the vampire genre as a metaphor for sexual awakening. Here we have the story of a girl who discovers her true, inner nature thanks to the intervention of a seductive older woman. That true self is incompatible with her strict, puritanical church teaching, so she rejects her faith in the most emphatic way possible. And how.

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