DIRECTED BY: Richard Blackburn
FEATURING: Lesley Taplin, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, William Whitton
PLOT: An innocent tween-age girl navigates a nightmare vision of post-Prohibition America in a search of her long-lost father, running into danger at every turn.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Lemora is a movie that will remind you of Night of the Hunter (1955) and Return to Oz (1985), in exactly equal measure. It takes the formula of an innocent child wandering in not-quite-tamed roadside Americana and turns it into “Goldilocks and the Zombie Apocalypse.” By the time we get to the title character, the uncomfortable psychosexual tones are no longer just a subtext, and we’re still not done sliding down the pit of creepy childhood fears.
COMMENTS: Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is often touted as “a fairy tale for adults,” and that devotion to this theme makes it too difficult to treat fairly and yet far too close to an unqualified masterpiece to just ignore. First we have to yell [TRIGGER WARNING] because there’s sex stuff, and it involves minors. We don’t mean “barely underage jailbait,” we’re talking thirteen! Remember how Labyrinth (1986) plays on the idea of Sarah being a woman-child heckled by a grown fantasy ruler? Take that, subtract two years, change “goblin king” to “lesbian vampire queen,” and you’re in the right neighborhood. Second, we have to hedge a minor [SPOILER] tag in here, because while the movie is coy with revealing its ultimate genre tags, and every review of it screams “lesbian” and “vampire” in the opening paragraph, this movie is in a completely different universe from the Jess Franco style one would normally expect given those keywords. You will not be titillated. You will squirm with discomfort at the squirrely games this movie plays with your psyche.
Lila Lee (the late Cheryl Smith) is a 13-year-old church choir girl famous in her small town for her gospel singing. Surreally innocent in her golden hair braids and Christian upbringing, she is a foster ward of the church, raised by the Reverend Meuller [sic] (played by director Blackburn) because her real father is a 1940’s style gangster on the lam for murder. The Reverend isn’t shy about touting her ascension to grace from such unsavory beginnings in his sermons, delivered to a peculiarly all-female congregation. But we barely have this backstory established when Lila gets a letter from a correspondent named “Lemora,” with news of her father. He is supposedly on his deathbed and ready to reconcile with Lila before slipping away, bidding her to come visit and cautioning her to come alone. Lila packs a suitcase and heads out the door post-haste, destination “Asteroth.” If you’ve brushed up on your demonology, you can take that as foreshadowing.
Lila is scarcely on the road before we’re confronted with the seedy universe of this movie. Men everywhere leer at her and hoot lewd come-ons. Everybody talks like stereotypical fallen Sodomites in some Christian morality play. Lila gets a ride to the bus station through the innovative strategy of stowing away in the back seat of the first car she comes across, where she overhears the occupants gossip about the supposed relationship between her and the Reverend. She contends with her minor celebrity status in this hedonistic post-Prohibition Babylon, but if she thinks her run-ins with brawling tavern patrons spilling out into the street in front of her are a shock to her system, she ain’t seen nothing yet. Her bus driver can barely warn her of the wicked horrors awaiting her at her destination before the vehicle breaks down and is promptly beset by beast-like vampires emerging from the dark woods. That incident delivers her to the hands of Lemora (Lesley Taplin), who half-shelters/half-imprisons the girl while making hollow promises to escort her to her father’s side.
Lemora lives in a mansion with a coven of feral kids and a cackling hag of a caretaker who favors Lila with a whispered song while shuffling a circle around her. Lemora exploits Lila, who is too obedient to resist much, but dimly aware that her benefactor isn’t exactly a safe refuge. There’s many a psychological shock and freaky twist yet in store, to say nothing of a scene where Lemora bathes Lila in a free-standing tub that somehow did not get this movie banned. While Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural doesn’t make a lick of logical sense, it is framed in dream logic that plays out like a fairy tale psychodrama in a post-apocalyptic age of myths. Your outer adult will yearn for some good old-fashioned blood and gore, because the movie is short on conventional vampire scares, while your inner child will scream and hide behind the couch for reasons that have nothing to do with blood-sucking.
This film is the single feature directorial outing for Richard Blackburn, whose otherwise checkered career includes pitching in on the screenplay for the equally tweaked Eating Raoul (1982). It was filmed in Pomona, California, a rusty section of east-side L.A. whose maze of industrial buildings are the perfect setting for pulpy adult fairy tales where the sun seemingly never shines. It’s a pristine specimen of the Southern Gothic genre, limited by a shoestring budget but nevertheless striking with a bold color scheme and deep, dark shadows which earn a comparison to Dario Argento. Lesley Taplin’s bewitched performance will bring to mind a live-action Disney villainess, while Cheryl Smith’s later fate (Caged Heat, Phantom of the Paradise, “Penthouse” pet, and an eventual untimely demise from heroin complications) makes her role here as a walking hambone in a universe of hungry Big Bad Wolfs just that much more cringey. Lemora has a well-deserved cult status with its fans mourning this movie’s underrated standing, but the in-your-face pedophilia themes guarantee that it will never find a wider audience. If it doesn’t belong here, it doesn’t belong anywhere.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“An art-house vampire movie with lesbian undertones, Richard Blackburn’s debut film puts an ambitious and surprisingly effective spin on traditional vampire movie cliches… This underrrated shocker has developed a cult following since its scattershot 1973 release, but deserves a wider one.”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide