Thursday, 10 August 2017

We Don’t Go Back #58: Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

If Valerie and her Week of Wonders and Carnival of Souls had a torrid affair and conceived an ill-behaved lovechild, it would probably look like Richard Blackburn’s only feature film, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural. 

(Before I go on, note that the film plays fast and loose with issues of child abuse, so, as usual, I should warn you that if this is a thing that especially upsets you, be careful.)  

He's out on a job.
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (sometimes released as Lemora: the Lady Dracula) is properly a cult film, a low-budget creepshow made by a young director who never made another feature film. Lemora paints an adolescent dreamscape, speaking the visual language of low-budget exploitation shockers but telling a very different story to the usual run of horror films. Lemora is, by turns, weird, creepy, silly and at times kind of pervy. The subtitle, A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, is very much not meant to imply that it’s a tale of the supernatural for a child, so much as it is the tale of one specific child’s contact with the supernatural. This is not at all a film you can show to your kids. Oh dear me, no.

Lemora is little seen. It had one UK video release, on VHS in 2000 (and if you had a copy, I hope you hung on to it, because it’s worth nearly a grand now). I only even heard of it because it had a rare screening at the Barbican earlier this year (which I didn’t actually get to see). Thank God for the internet though — I got a Spanish copy.
Our singing angel.
Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith (perhaps better known for her part in legendary exploitation film Caged Heat, here aged 17 and in her first screen role) here plays Lila Lee, an angelic chorister and child-preacher in a depression era revivalist church. Lila’s father, notorious mobster Alvin Lee (William Whitton) is seen at the very start of the film gunning down his wife and her lover, and going on the run; Lila meanwhile is placed in the care of the Reverend (director Richard Blackburn). We see Lila leading the congregation in hymns. We see Alvin apprehended by black clad figures near a house in the woods. Lila receives a letter from someone called Lemora claiming that Alvin is on his deathbed and asking for his daughter’s forgiveness. She steals away by night, wanders through the bad part of town. She takes a bus to a forsaken woodland inhabited by monstrous inhabitants, escaping them and into the clutches of the pale, black-haired, black-clad Lemora (Leslie Gilb), who offers a combination of weirdly childish and very adult temptations to Lila.
I only go there special. Like... TONIGHT!

And that's only the first fifteen minutes of Lemora. It fair rattles along. And from there, it’s hard to be quite sure if the weird logic of the film is a deliberate attempt to harness dream-narrative or a sort of by-product of the enthusiasm of a filmmaker who is so inexperienced, he hasn’t worked out how to adopt conventionally bad habits, doesn't know the shortcuts that bad filmmakers use.

At times, the performances of the cast are best and most kindly described as “coarse acting”, especially in the case of the old bus driver (Hy Pike) whose scenery-chewing performance, full of tics and weird cadences (“They don’t like… PEOPLE asking QUESTIONS! And sometimes… THEY DON’T COME BACK!”) reminds me of nothing more than some of Rich Fulcher's characters in The Mighty Boosh.  
I won't tolerate any more of these unseemly displays of affection.
Every single man who meets Lila in the first few minutes of the film pervs over her, even the Reverend, who, Lila realises in flashback after overhearing some gossip to the effect, is struggling with a forbidden attraction to the girl, stopping her from hugging him and then finding his Bible falls open at The Song of Solomon1.

In the clutches of Lemora, Lila is at least freed from the attentions of men, and drifts through a succession of encounters with a creepy old woman (Maxine Ballantyne) who walks around her in a circle, singing, and spectral, vampire children. She is bullied into drinking blood from a huge, barbaric chalice. Lila drops her mirror and smashes it after she realises that Lemora has no reflection. She meets the monstrous, bestial creature that is all that remains of her father. Lila finds a diary that belongs to a girl called Mary Jo, but of Mary Jo’s fate she has no clue. At times Lila is terrified; at other times she is passive; at other times she finds the whole experience oddly enjoyable. At the centre of it all is Lemora, whose chiselled, angular features, bluish lips, huge black eyes and fruity, throaty voice create a quintessential distaff vampire (the “Lady Dracula” of the alternative title).

In the final, climactic scenes, the film’s narrative collapses in on itself, folding back into repetition and contradiction at the same time. The fragmentation of the story parallels (accidentally, I think, but no less effectively for that) the collapse of our heroine’s resolve, and the crisis that precede (a dark) enlightenment.
Did I frighten you, Lila?
The vampire, as in so many stories, is a sometimes unconscious metaphor for sexuality, and Lila’s story does, I suppose, echo that, but the sexuality of the film expresses itself in icky ways. Over and over, we’re presented with the desire of adult men for a girl explicitly portrayed as just entering adolescence (and played by a 17-year old, and I’ve talked about why that’s a problem before), and a girl’s love for her dad foreshadows an explicit parallel with the advances of a vampire toward her victim.

I can see how you might think that Lemora could be a queer movie (inasmuch as nearly all vampire cinema is at least a tiny bit queer) but frankly, it’s all a bit too male-gazey for that to make sense. Lila Lee is a cinematic ideal of the virgin, but she is somehow not virginal. Cheryl Smith’s Wikipedia page says that she was a Penthouse Pet, and I don’t know, Rainbeaux Smith seems pretty much the Platonic Ideal of the Seventies Porn Star Name, and even though she wasn’t calling herself that when she made Lemora, you can still see it in the way that the film almost dares you to fantasise about her.
If you don't enjoy our company, you can go back to where you were, Lila.
Lemora isn’t objectified in the way that Lila is, nor is she someone who really expresses desire for other women. No, Lemora only drinks the blood of children (which is perhaps a reference to vampire Lucy from Dracula), and if you tie that up with sexuality, you quickly go to icky places, and you have to tie it up with sexuality, because it’s explicitly done at the end of the film, so you end up going to those same icky places again, if you think too hard about it. And let’s be honest, I probably think too hard about it. Lemora's seduction of Lila isn't the charm of a lover, it's the lure of someone who grooms a child, sometimes sugary sweet, sometimes emotionally abusive and manipulative.
Lemora: If someone has it in them to love me, they love me from the minute they see me. Sometimes they don't even know it.

Lemora bothers me. But it is, for a one-time movie, really interesting to look at. I mentioned Carnival of Souls; you get the same return to the start of the film, the same wildly uneven performances and rough yet inspired direction. But Smith is compelling and magnetic, a perfect ingénue; Gilb’s astonishing face does much of her acting, but she delivers her declarative, sometimes hokey dialogue with a sort of fruity conviction.2
Sometimes they don't even know it.
Lila’s story (and her fate) puts Lemora on a continuum with Valerie and her Week of Wonders and The Company of Wolves. The Depression is as much a natural home for the American folk horror narrative as the seventeenth century is for the British version, thanks mainly to Lovecraft. Lemora owes a little to Lovecraft. At the start, when Lila hops onto the single non-timetabled bus to a portentously named backwoods community (seriously, who calls a town Asteroth?) where everyone is deformed and strange and the local chapel is dedicated to infernal forces, I couldn’t help thinking of The Shadow over Innsmouth, which is based upon the same premise (and I ummed and ahhed, but it looks like I'm going to have to do the film of The Dunwich Horror soon, because it's the context that films like this and Jug Face work in).

But where Lovecraft gets a whole novella out of that premise, it’s just one of a big ol' passel of feverish ideas that Blackburn pulls in and discards as it goes along.
Come to my arms and free yourself from all guilt.
Lemora is a much more interesting proposition. The secluded wooded community of Asteroth worships dark gods, but its inhabitants respond to the plague of supernatural evil that Lemora brought to them in different ways, either descending into half-werewolf, half-zombie monsters, or joining the ranks of the vampire cult, and Lemora implies that the people who become vampires are somehow better, higher in spirit. But better how? More moral? Stronger willed? Does that mean that people who are more good have the capacity for a higher order of evil? It’s hard to say.

But then, Lemora leaves a whole lot of questions unanswered. By any conventional metric, Lemora is, not unlike Psychomania, in no way a good film and yet it has this terrific, delirious energy to it, and it’s not that it deliberately tries to be different and strange, it seems to me that it can't be any other way. It’s not that Blackburn wanted to make an eccentric film, it’s that this is the film he had in him, and this is the only way he could make it.

You couldn’t ever call Lemora pedestrian, and as I keep saying, I’d rather watch a creaky film that tried to do something odd and new than any number of glossy, efficient genre pieces. It’s breathtakingly pervy in places, this film, as perhaps exploitation cinema has to be, and just plain silly in other bits, but Lemora is fun. It's energetic, and strange, and never, ever boring.

Notes
1Traditionally, The Song of Solomon (sometimes Song of Songs) has been thought of as the metaphorical hymn of God’s love to His People; but really it’s a lengthy and formal paean to sexual desire, in the form of a wedding hymn. To the modern reader, some of the erotic similes are a bit odd (the bit about the inamorata’s breasts being “leaping gazelles” springs to mind), but it’s one of the most sexually charged texts in all of Bronze Age literature, and it sort of comes as no surprise that very early on the Primitive Church took every step it could to avoid the obvious reading of it. (back)

2In reading around, I was a bit sad to find out that neither of them is still around. Rainbeaux Smith, after a string of B movies and a stint as Joan Jett’s drummer, died at the age of 47, victim of her addictions. Leslie Gilb Taplin worked in film production and theatre, and spent many years volunteering for charitable organisations. She was only 62 when she died, in a car accident, in 2009. (back)

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