Tuesday 4 September 2018

Artsploitation! Richard Blackburn on Vampires and Apes

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, which is honestly one of the most downright fun films I've found since starting my project, was directed by Richard (Dick) Blackburn, and I had the immense privilege to talk with Dick over the phone a couple of times over the last week, and to ask him about Lemora, and also, more briefly, about his voice work on Return to the Planet of the Apes, which makes Dick the nexus of an unlikely crossover of my interests.

Lemora began, Dick told me, when he and Robert Fern, his collaborator and friend from college, began to think about how to get the funds together to make a horror movie. “Bob Fern and myself, because the Count Yorga films were doing well, we thought, ‘Let's make a vampire movie!’”Right from the beginning, they aimed to make something very different. “It was a whole new genre: artsploitation! I don’t know if we actually invented artsploitation, but we definitely contributed to it.”

Dick, having been to film school, really did bring an artistic sensibility to the picture – he’d been to film school at UCLA (and had been a contemporary of Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison, pre-Doors). At UCLA he’d done a student film, Batman and Mr Fizz,which he’d deliberately made to look cheap and cheerful. “It was a success with the faculty. The only person who didn’t like it, the only faculty person, was Josef von Sternberg, who was teaching there at the time, and it was to him a kind of attack on his aesthetic. It upset him. Some of the students didn’t like it, because they thought it was frivolous. They were doing cinema verité, they were doing things about their burgeoning relationships. My pursuits of various women were at that point hardly dramatic enough to be recorded on film.”

In fact, it was shown at Royce Hall, among the pick of the student films that semester. “Pauline Kael turned up, with two German Shepherds and a hip flask. So, she liked it at least.” Dick sent it to William Dozier, who was the producer of the 60s Batman series. “He actually told me he thought it was un-American! He was just appalled at the film, he really was upset, and you know, because he was a year away from his project, Batman on TV, he said Batman was too old, and I said, ‘Well, he is old, if you count when he was first drawn,’ and he didn’t like that at all, and then he said ‘Robin looks gay,’ and I said, ‘Naturally!’ He got all upset. It was my first encounter with Hollywood, and I thought they were gonna accept me with open arms, and it was quite the reverse.”

Dick was inspired by writers like Arthur Machen (The White People), and Lovecraft, particularly the story The Shadow Over Innsmouth the film even mentions "the Asteroth look". “The idea of Asteroth also came from a British writer, Mervyn Peake. He wrote a story called Boy In Darkness. It gave me the idea of degeneration, devolution, of people turning into animals.”

I’m watching Lemora now while I’m writing this, and it’s extraordinary in the way that its shots are so beautifully framed. “When it was being put together the lab said that they had never seen so many set-ups in a film with such a low budget.” Perhaps a more experienced filmmaker would have cut more corners? “Ha! I’m reminded of a story about John Huston, and that film he made in Mexico – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And how Don Siegal told the story of how he had been asked to do it first, and he’d said no, and he said, he was grateful that John Huston had made it and not him, because he knew John Huston would do it properly and go to Mexico. We did a lot of night shooting, and that was difficult. When you do a low budget film, there’s three things they tell you you’re not supposed to do. You’re not supposed to shoot at night, you’re not supposed to do period, and you’re not supposed to have lots of makeup effects. We did all three! I used to joke about the fact that I probably made more mistakes that nobody had thought of.”

I suppose if you want to shoot a film set in a big old spooky house, you go and find a big old spooky house? “Yeah, but still you can see things that aren’t right with it, there’s things I’d change. For years people thought that this film had been shot in Georgia. If you live in California, you can see that it’s made there – you can see some pepper trees in the background, and that’s not something you see in Georgia. I don’t know why people thought it was shot in Georgia, I don’t know where that rumour started. Another rumour was that it was condemned by the Catholic church. That rumour kind of helped the film.”

Did Dick always mean to be the Reverend? “No. It was about keeping to a low budget. We had a lot of people doing different jobs – Monty Pike was the assistant makeup man as well. All sorts of things went wrong. The AD tried to take over the film, and we had to fire him. So I got to play the Reverend because it meant I didn’t have to pay another actor.”
Monty Pike (Hy Pyke)
Credited as Hy Pyke, Monty Pike's performance as the bus driver is one of those turns that you never really forget. “Monty Pike – he changed his name to Hy, I don’t know why, but he was Monty – I went to UCLA with him. He was great. He was really eccentric. I joked that maybe he should change his name to ‘Turn’.” Pyke, who died in 2006, has probably been seen by the most people in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where he’s the seedy owner of the bar where Zhora works.

The film hinges on the striking performances of Cheryl (“Rainbeaux”) Smith and Lesley Gilb (later Lesley Taplin), neither of whom had acted much before “It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want someone who might have been a better actor or actress, like theatre actors who might have looked OK had it just been a play, it’s that I would have taken an actor from anywhere as long as they would look good on camera. It was the look. Because I knew that Lila was going to be on camera throughout the entire film. And I did read somebody who was a more accomplished actress, but she wouldn’t look as good. She wouldn’t have been as believable. Lesley had done hardly anything, Cheryl had been in some films, but they just weren’t experienced. Lesley’s readings are very stiff, and Cheryl’s are much more natural, but they work opposite each other really well.”

Sadly, both Lesley Taplin (née Gilb) and Cheryl Smith, who would go on to have a career in exploitation cinema and rock’n’roll, are no longer with us. “Cheryl tried to get in touch with me before she died. It was drugs that killed her. Anyway, I got a message saying that she wanted to talk to me, but when I got back, she’d already passed away.”
Cheryl Smith
Lemora wasn't immediately a success. Its limited distribution meant that few people saw it, and critics ignored it entirely. “There weren’t scathing reviews of Lemora, there weren’t any reviews. Lemora sank without a trace. The only time it was mentioned was later, negatively, in Leonard Maltin’s film guide, who gave it a black dot. I think maybe there was some negative review in the college paper – we previewed it at Claremont College – and they didn’t like it. But that was really it. There weren’t really any reviews at all. It had such limited distribution that there weren’t any.”

Overseas, Lemora got a little more respect. "There was a French magazine, Positif Magazine, and they reviewed it, and they identified both of the main literary influences.” The French tend to take horror seriously, don’t they? “I think that it’s because they don’t really have such a horror tradition, like there is in England, or the US, or Germany. I think horror works best in the Northern countries, where it’s cold and dark in the Winter and you’re stuck inside at night.” 

It was only much later that Dick realised that maybe he’d made a cult movie. “This one time, some kid knocked on my door. He’d taken a bus, cross country, and he had all these nine-inch glossies, and he wanted me to sign them. It was then I knew that maybe I had a following.”

I mentioned that I felt Lemora resembled a sort of intersection between Carnival of Souls and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. “Those are the two films that get brought up a lot. I can see the first one,” he says, “but I don’t see the similarities with Carnival of Souls. That’s too bleak. It’s bleak all the way through, and I think Lemora is a brighter sort of film.” One film that has curious parallels to Lemora, in fact, is in Dick’s opinion fellow UCLA alumnus Paul Bartel’s Private Parts (1972), which was made at about the same time. “Paul’s film is much more grotesquely kinky, and mine is more sort of romantically gothic, so there are definitely differences there.” But weirdly, Private Parts has a similar sort of plot and a similar sort of descent for its heroine. Dick would later on co-write Bartel’s Eating Raoul (1982).

Lemora, although of its time, holds up pretty well now. “I think having a period setting meant that Lemora has aged better than some other films of the day – it isn’t full of people in platform shoes. I think the Depression is a good setting for a horror story. Night of the Hunter was a film that influenced me a lot. Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, too.”

Dick also worked as a member of the voice cast on Return to the Planet of the Apes, which I’d only recently discovered. “It was a lot better than a lot of the animation back then. It was smarter. I was Dr Zaius and one of the astronauts – Bill.” Dick knew from the beginning that the animated Zaius wasn’t supposed to be a bad guy. “I got the part because I was the only one who didn’t try to do an English accent. They said that an English accent is a villain in the mind of children. It’s funny how English accents are like that. Like in Ancient Rome, everyone’s got an English accent. And on an alien planet too, all English accents! But with Dr Zaius, I'd just done my Leo G Carroll impression.” Ironically, Leo G Carroll was in fact English, but in films and TV – notably The Man from UNCLE – he affected a sort of mid-Atlantic accent, which worked beautifully for Dr Zaius.
A typically dynamic example of Doug Wildey's work
Dick puts down the peculiar quality of the Return to the Planet of the Apes cartoon to director Doug Wildey, who’d later work on Thundarr the Barbarian, Godzilla and The Incredible Hulk. “Doug Wildey, he worked in comic books, and you could see that in the quality of some of the drawings and the ideas he had.” Other voice cast, too, impressed. “Austin Stoker, who played Jeff, he was also really good. I didn’t realise until much later on that he was in Assault on Precinct 13, which was a great movie.”

When you’re a cult figure, interviews can come as a surprise. “One time, a friend brought me this magazine and he said, you've been interviewed. And I didn't remember doing it. I'd never talked to this guy! But I thought I'd read it, to see what I thought, you know? So one question was, ‘Do you consider yourself to be anticlerical?’ Ok, so what do I think about this? ‘Not particularly.’ Well, that's about right. Later on I actually met the guy at a party and I said, ‘Why’d you do that?‘ He said, ‘I couldn't find you!’”

Does it surprise Dick that people are still excited about a movie you made 45 years ago, or an old kids’ Saturday morning cartoon? “When it’s just a job, you don’t think that something is going to be thought of this way all these years later. And if something does badly, well, it’s painful and you don’t want to think about it, and then you discover later on that people love it, and you can look at it again.”

I suppose that Lemora, in its afterlife as a cult film, especially now it’s seen some uncut video and DVD releases has had something of a happy ending. But does Lemora itself have a happy ending?

“It does, if you’re a vampire!”