Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural
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Friends and aspiring filmmakers Richard Blackburn and Robert Fern were UCLA film school graduates looking to make their mark on the filmmaking world. It was the early seventies and they figured that the best way to get into moviemaking was to make their own low-budget horror film. Vampires were big again, notably the lesbian-chic vampires of The Velvet Vampire and Daughters of Darkness (both 1971), and it seemed a natural. But Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) is no conventional vampire horror or sexploitation knock-off. "It fell between the cracks of art film and exploitation film," observed Blackburn, looking back on the film in 2004.
Set in the Depression-era South, it opens like a rural gangster movie and detours into a drama of religious hypocrisy before becoming a sinister Alice in Wonderland. Cheryl Smith stars as the innocent Lila Lee, the young, virginal daughter of a vicious gangster and wife killer. Taken in by a tormented Baptist minister (director Richard Blackburn himself) who praises her innocence while fighting his desire for her, she runs away to the mysterious Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who promises to reunite her with her father. Young and trusting, fragile yet determined, this blond, freckled girl is the model of a guileless child on the verge of womanhood, Candide by way of Alice, but instead of a wonderland she wanders a corrupt world of wicked people and undead monsters.
Director Richard Blackburn and producer Robert Fern co-wrote the original screenplay together and produced the film on a tiny budget with a crew of friends, fellow film students, and a few professionals. They turn Pomona, California into a small southern town of the prohibition era with little more than carefully chosen locations, a few period cars, well-dressed sets and evocative costumes, and create an eerie, dislocated atmosphere deep in the woods, where ghouls prowl and prey upon anyone who wanders into the haunted forest. The make-up effects are often less convincing as the production stretched its resources to meet Blackburn's ambitions. "I never told him that many of his concepts were beyond his budget," recalls make-up artist Byrd Holland, "instead, the crew and I managed to give him what he wanted."
Blackburn has cited H. P. Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth," Arthur Machen's "The White People," and Mervyn Peake's "Boy in Darkness" as literary influences on their original story. You can see echoes of the lost boys from "Peter Pan" in the ghoulish children of Lemora's manor and the beastly ghouls of the forest could be an unholy offspring of George Romero's zombies and the beast men of H.G. Wells' Island of Doctor Moreau. The stylized direction and dream-like atmosphere recall the expressionist color of Hammer horrors and Curtis Harrington's films and create a sensibility somewhere between Southern Gothic and European art cinema.
Cheryl Smith was 16 years old when she played the role of the 13-year-old Lila, walking through the film with an eerie calm amidst the hysteria around her. She's called "the Singin' Angel" at her church, where she solos in the choir, and in the final act of the film she wanders through the night world in a virginal white nightgown that sets her apart from the dark creatures. In real life, Smith was quite the wild child and went on to star in a number of subsequent films under the name Rainbeaux Smith (a nickname she acquired hanging out at the Sunset Strip's Rainbow Room), beginning with Jonathan Demme's directorial debut, the cult women-in-prison film Caged Heat (1974).
The film had a disastrous audience preview ("By 1973, to do something like that with a quasi-European slant to it--it did not fulfill genre expectations at all," Blackburn later recalled) and Blackburn and Fern, unable to secure a distributor, were forced to sell off the film to pay back debts. The film subsequently went through a series of companies that released it under a variety of titles: The Legendary Curse of Lemora, Lemora - The Lady Dracula, and simply Lady Dracula. Richard Blackburn never directed another feature, but he did direct episodes of the TV horror anthology Tales from the Darkside and he co-wrote and co-produced the cult black comedy Eating Raoul (1982) with director Paul Bartel. But the reputation of his one and only feature as a director was rehabilitated in later years, praised by the likes of Michael Weldon, Tim Lucas, and Alain Silver and James Ursini, and the original negative, thought lost for decades, was recovered and resurrected, finally offering modern viewers a look at the original, uncut film in all of its beauty.
Producer: Robert Fern
Director: Richard Blackburn
Screenplay: Richard Blackburn, Robert Fern (screenplay)
Cinematography: Robert Caramico
Art Direction: Sterling Franck
Music: Dan Neufeld
Film Editing: Pieter S. Hubbard
Cast: Lesley Gilb (Lemora), Cheryl Smith (Lila Lee), William Whitton (Alvin Lee), Hy Pyke (The Bus Driver), Maxine Ballantyne (The Old Woman), Steve Johnson (The Ticket Seller), Parker West (The Young Man), Charla Hall, Jack Fisher, Buck Buchanan, Richard Blackburn (The Reverend)
by Sean Axmaker
"Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural Liner Notes," Richard Harland Smith and Chris Poggiali. Synapse, 2004
DVD commentary by Richard Blackburn, Robert Fern, and Lesley Gilb