Friday, February 02, 2007

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural – review

dvd

Directed by: Richard Blackburn

Release Date: 1973

Contains spoilers

This is one of the few films showing on imdb for Richard Blackburn who both directed the film and wrote the screenplay as well as playing the role of The Reverend in the movie and it seems a shame as he constructed a film that, whilst it should have been hampered by lack of budget, is one of the most atmospheric horror movies to come out of the early seventies.

The film itself is a gothic horror set in the Deep South of America in the 1920s and yet has an almost European feel to it. Lesley Gilb as LemoraIt was, I believe, on the Catholic Church banned list for many years, though it is difficult to see why and perhaps was because it hinted at a sexual interest with the thirteen year old lead character Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith) – though this is only a hint and what the film actually does, in many respects, is allegorically chart her awakening from child to adult.

The film is often described as a fairytale and all the elements are there, the child protagonist I have already mentioned, we have the evil queen (in this case the vampire Lemora played by Lesley Gilb), the witchMaxine Ballantyne as Solange (Solange played by Maxine Ballantyne), the danger in the woods (both the vampires and the monstrous Woods People) and the Prince (the Reverend). Blackburn uses these elements, whether subconsciously or consciously I do not know, but adds in a gothic horror born of pulp horror fiction, including but not limited to Lovecraft – the DVD liner notes confirms that Blackburn cited ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’ as an influence.

The film starts with voices in the darkness, a woman telling a man that *he* won’t be home, he’s off doing a job. The screen floods with light as a door opens and we see the couple in bed and the woman’s husband, murderous gangster Alvin Lee (William Whitton) bursting in and shooting down his wife and her lover. He makes his escape knocking someone down in his car as he does so.

Cheryl Smith as LilaThe film cuts to a church and Lila Lee, the “singin’ angel”, is performing a hymn. Afterwards the Reverend begins his sermon, a homily on good and evil but directly referring to Lila. She has been his ward for three years and yet townsfolk are trying to tar the innocent with the same brush as that of her murderous father.

The juxtaposition between the cuckold father violently murdering the mother and the innocent daughter singing her hymn is beautifully done.

Alvin is on the run but, as he drives we see eyes over the landscape. He stops and shoots at a figure, Lemora, to no effect. Black clad vampires grab him and in his pocket is a cutting about Lila. Lila receives a letter from Lemora, it gives instructions of how to get to where she lives and says her father is ill, dying even, and he wants forgiveness. She must tell no-one and come alone. So it is, leaving only a note to say that she has gone to forgive her father, she runs away.

Her journey is one where she faces prejudice (to a degree) and sleaze (to a much greater extent). She needs to get to a bus depot in a nearby town and asks a man (Parker West), who is picking his date up, for a lift. He denies her with a sexual innuendo and so, as he goes to hurry his date up, she hides in the back of his car. The date realises it must have been Lila who asked for the lift and the young girl hears the older girl attacking her for her goodness and the man making lurid suggestions. In the town she sees a whore in a red light window winking at her, she sees a man beat a whore and ask her if she wants a good time. Even the ticket seller (Steve Johnson) makes sleazy overtures as he offers chocolates. The driver (Hy Pyke) of the bus to Astaroth (a Lovecraftian name if ever I heard one!) also makes a suggestive comment. All in all the male characters in this are not portrayed in a positive light, except for the Reverend. With the Reverend we see, in flashback through the film, how he felt an attraction to the child and yet struggled with his baser side.

The bus driver mentions a plague that hit Astaroth, he doesn’t like to go there and the indication is that the bus has been laid on especially for Lila. The town is in the swamps and even the railroad has stopped its journeys there. The plague has left folks disfigured. As they draw close figures emergepoor screenshot - sorry from the trees, the ones who have gone wild, and one throws itself at the bus. They are bestial looking creatures, the makeup is not the best but the blue night shots disguise the worst of the effects (though make clear screenshots difficult). The bus stalls and the driver has to get out, gun in hand, to try and fix the vehicle. He is suddenly attacked, letting off a shot, and more creatures are coming. He tells Lila to release the brake and coast, which she does, but he doesn’t make it back on. Lila looses control of the bus and crashes. More creatures are coming but suddenly a pale fanged creature attacks them. We hear the voice of Lemora telling the vampire to take Lila to the Stone House before burning the bodies.

When Lila comes round the old woman Solange comes into the Stone House (a small stone shack, off the main house, very much like a prison with bars on the window and a locked door) the corpse of Mary Jowith food, although at first she believes that Lila is Mary Jo. As the film progresses Lila finds Mary Jo’s diary, a young girl who lived in the house back in the 1890s. Lemora gets quite upset at the mention later of Mary Jo, someone who spurned love in Lemora’s opinion and, towards the climax, Lila finds May Jo’s body preserved in a glass coffin. It becomes apparent that Mary Jo was Lemora’s first intended convert to vampirism and it is likely that Solange was her mother as Lemora states that Solange used to own the property. Solange comes across very much as a witch type character in looks and seems very much insane.

Of course Lila has been selected by Lemora, who intends to turn her during a ritual but I really do not want to go too far into the story. The vampirism, however, is interesting – although much has to be discovered by reading between the lines.

Lemora with blood at mouthThe vampires are blood drinkers and Lila discovers this when she spies Lemora feeding on a child. We assume, as Lemora only appears at night, that they cannot rise during the day and Lemora on a couple of occasions worries at the chain of Lila’s crucifix, indicating an aversion to holy objects.

the clawed hand of a childLemora has a cadre of puritanically dressed vampires who do her bidding plus a group of vampiric children. We see the children drink a red liquid, presumably blood, poured from a chalice – a drink that Lemora expects Lila to drink also, telling her it is like wine (something Lila is unsure of as she doesn’t drink liquor). At one point one of the children reaches out to touch Lila’s hand and the child’s hand seems gnarled and claw like.

Lila's father attacksThere are also the Woods People, the hideously deformed creatures. Lila’s father turns into one of these, breaking his bonds and escaping the house and later attacking Lila. There is an indication that the woods creatures and the vampires may be of the same lineage, with base, violent people becoming Woods People as their nature dictates. However, when Lila is injured by one Lemora is quick to touch the wound, removing the venom as one would with a snake bite she says and she also states that Lila has a choice to become debased like they or be elevated like Lemora.

There is some staking; we certainly see one of the Woods People staked and the Reverend, who searches for Lila, comes across a town strewn with bodies and it looks, though the camera shots are from a distance, as though they have all been staked.

fangs extendedLemora speaks often of love and, with the arrogance that only a vampire could truly hold, states that all people love her though some do not know it straight away. She indicates that turning Lila would be an act of love and, as I said at the head, there is perhaps some indication that the love has a carnal basis. At one point Lemora bathes the girl and comments “What an exciting figure you have.” However, as the film represents, in many respects, a pubescent child’s sexual awakening - with the girl beginning to notice the looks of men (though they seem crude to her), the vampires (especially Lemora) representing vanity (at one point Lemora says that the reason Lila has no real friends is that all the other girls are jealous of her) and the Woods People representing the raw animal carnality within us all - perhaps to focus too much on such a comment as base sexual innuendo is doing the script a disservice.

The film drips atmosphere and has a great soundtrack. Some complain that, whilst looking marvellous as Lemora, Gilb is wooden but I took her performance to be more aloofvampiric children - always spooky than anything else and that fits in with the ‘vampire as vanity’ symbolism. Cheryl Smith is fantastic as Lila and Blackburn convincing as a straight laced preacher. Of course Blackburn did marvellously well with atmosphere given the low budget and he also understood that vampiric children are eerie in their own right.

The sub-text of the film are many and varied and it can be explored on very many levels, certainly more than I have room for here – yet that is the nature of an effective fairytale. This is superb cinema, neglected, ignored and even reviled in its time. The DVD from Synapse film has a great print and is a great set – and a quick personal thanks to regular reader Crabstix who got me the DVD for Christmas a few years ago now.

Definitely deserving of 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

6 comments:

Casey C said...

LOVE THIS MOVIE!

Great review. The atmosphere on this one is the key. Almost magical and definitely totally unique.

I ended up looking up Cheryl Smith after I watched this one, and that's a sad story in itself. Look it up sometime.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks Casey - and you're right the atmosphere is key and, given the atmosphere, it is a shame that Blackburn did little else.

I will certainly go and have a look at Cheryl Smith's story.

Anonymous said...

I just saw Lemora, partly on the recommendation of this site. I agree with 8 out of 10.

Lemora reminded me both of A Company Of Wolves (girl coming of age dark fairytale) and Vampyr (eerie atmospheric with odd characters and incidents, long stretches with no dialogue).

I believe the reason that the Catholic Church banned it is because Lemora says that her church is ancient and the one the others came from from. Of course this is intended to refer to pre-Judeo-Christian paganism, but it could also be misinterpreted as the Catholic Church.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi anon - I'm glad I could be party top steering someone to this film and glad you enjoyed it.

Interesting thought on why the Catholic Church banned the film. Of course the ban was ludicrous for whatever reason it was impossed.

Zahir Blue said...

Great vampire flick! Might amuse you that among a certain groups of fans I'm putting for the theory that Abby is LMI is in fact Lila in "Lemora."

Taliesin_ttlg said...

that's a neat theory ;)