Low budget filmmaking is frequently the domain of sleazy operators with no aspirations to quality whatsoever. The exceptional fringe horror films often succeed simply by daring to be different, giving the genre more inspired independent classics than any other.
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is far from perfect and shows real deficiencies in a couple of areas, but it is buoyed by qualities that can't be bought, even by the majors: an imaginative script, a fine central performance and a willingness to venture into taboo subject matter.
Shot out in Pomona by a film student with a family willing to bankroll his future, Lemora is one of those regional pictures done by people too enthused with moviemaking to be deterred by the pitfalls. Today people are making DVDCam features instead of writing scripts and the market is flooded with 'wannabe' pictures with extremely low 'wannasee' potential. In the 1970s independent filmmaking was still an expensive and cumbersome hill to climb, and only filmmakers capable of inspiring a crew to help them bring a film to finish could get anywhere. When somebody hit, it was news - the John Landises, John Carpenters and Don Coscarellis. In each case those talents had more 'pieces of the puzzle' than normal, whether it be inside connections, serious experience or access to money. But there's no denying that their first films were feverish personal creative quests ... even a comedy like Schlock.
The producer of Lemora says that he made bets that his epic would outgross The Godfather. As absurd as this sounds, that kind of giddy optimism is the only way to jump into a movie project.
Inspired by Lovecraft and Machen, this is a vampire melange that at least part of the time benefits from its production crudity. Its photography is okay but not exceptional, and first-time writer and director Richard Blackburn doesn't have much of a hold on the visual end of things. Yet even with its American-primitive style and frequent amateur acting, Lemora gets off to a winningly weird start that culminates in a genuinely spooky bus ride into a haunted forest.
The production masterstroke was the casting of seventeen year-old Cheryl Smith as the virginal innocent Lila Lee, a daughter of scandal lured to her doom by the matriarchal vampiress Lemora. Using children in movies is a sure pitfall, and many a reasonable idea has been sunk by the uselessness of a child actor everyone thought would be perfect for the part - i.e., the director's son or daughter. Cheryl Smith is on camera for practically every shot in the movie and yet never makes a wrong move. Her numbed reactions to monsters and vampire attacks hit a good pitch between dismay and shock, and she approaches all kinds of tacky scenes with a naturalness that lends them validity. It's a taller order than it seems. There are lots of 20-something name actors that bore us to death after only a few minutes on screen.
Blackburn's fleabite show is short on production value but long on literary qualities transferred smoothly to the screen. Lila Lee moves in a convincingly hostile night world where every male is a sexual predator or an out-and-out monster. Like a classic gothic heroine, she takes a trip to a remote place of evil where escape is unlikely and learns about the truth of her situation from glimpses stolen through cracks in floorboards, and snippets of diary entries from previous victims.
The horror setup is complicated and not very well explained, which often leaves the movie in an oddly desirable state of confused delirium. The ghouls are the victims of vampires, devolved humans "liberated" by vampires and reverting to their inner evil selves. Vampire queen Lemora routinely victimizes children, seducing them with faintly obscene sexual advances. This content surely earned the film its bad rap with the Catholic Legion of Decency. That's ironic because Lemora is one of the more Christian horror movies I've seen.
Cheryl Smith's performance holds the picture together. Lesley Gilb has an effective presence and plays her vampiric role with admirable restraint, but her dialogue sounds stilted. Although it explains precious little, what she says drones on in tones that are far too artificial, even by creature feature standards. Everyone else is more or less amateur-hour even though Maxine Ballantyne's old harpy and Hy Pyke's rabid bus driver are nicely orchestrated into the film's texture. The various ghouls and werewolf-like creatures become less menacing the more we see of them, especially with their variable makeup jobs, which needed to be obscured more to stay potent (although there are some very good moments). Gilb's coven of vampires are even more patchily made-up, and often look like a bunch of girl scouts playing witches.
The sound mix is more successful, even with the many bad dialogue readings. Audio details are good and whoever put the tracks together did a careful job of layering creepy sounds. The bus ride through the haunted forest is particularly successful, and the expressive soundtrack frequently saves later scenes of Lila wandering around and being chased by various monsters.
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural suffered a common fate for potentially commercial independent films of its time. Previously, films would be shopped around until their producers gave up and more or less surrendered them to brokers like Sam Arkoff, who could smell potentially salvageable films from miles away. He'd chop one up, rescore it with Lex Baxter cues and that would be that. Lemora apparently got a microscopic release and then disappeared, with its negative presumed lost or stolen.
Richard Harland Smith's production notes mention the film getting attention in the 1992 revision of Alain Silver and James Ursini's book The Vampire Film. In about 1990 Ursini was in the habit of bringing his research tapes over to my house to watch, and we saw what he could find on Lemora. The story could barely be followed, with scenes so dark the characters were difficult to identify and audio so hissy that dialogue could barely be made out. But Jim was able to confirm that it was indeed a vampire film, and its religious angle intrigued him so he gave it a good write-up. It was one of those films that stood out from most of the drek he researched.
Like the once-lost Dementia/Daughter of Horror, Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural surfaced intact thanks to the interest and tenacity of a DVD producer, in this case Don May of Synapse. The restoration of this overachieving oddity is a major find for the horror film (I'm talking film history, here) and everybody involved should be taking bows.
Synapse's DVD of Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is a polished disc that treats the obscure movie like the lost gem that it is. The stunning transfer proves that the film was shot in 35mm in moody color - lots of blacks and blues - and had a consistent look. The audio also is as clear as a bell. I'm fairly convinced that this was no discovery from a dusty attic: somebody went to the trouble of a vault search and must have found that the distributor had parked all the elements in some desirable spot .... for thirty years. If only every film could be so lucky; minor titles held by major studios are often treated with relative contempt.
The main extra is a filmmaker's commentary with Blackburn, his producer Fern and star Gilb, who shot the film on her summer break from Stanford. None of them have kept in contact and the commentary, while quite detailed on some angles of the production, never fills us in on what has happened to them in the meantime. Blackburn seems to have discovered that he was a celebrated genre filmmaker long after his movie was believed lost. Also, although the DVD starts with a card commemorating the late actress Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, the commentary doesn't probe deeply into her story. Ms. Gilb tends to ask good questions, but we don't learn too much about her short career in the movies either.
There's also a still section with many continuity snaps from the set and what look like video frame blowups. There is no trailer. The package text says that "You may have seen Lemora in the theaters but you've NEVER seen it like this!" If you saw Lemora first run in the theaters, you're in a very select minority of moviegoers.
A colorful, professional insert carries more good artwork and liner notes by Richard Harland Smith and Chris Poggiali. Their credibility shoots skyward in the first paragraph where they state outright that the movie is "amateurish yet crudely poetic." That's good preparation for a film that can be rewarding to serious genre fans as long as they aren't expecting a a horror version of The Magnificent Ambersons. There's also a note from the film's makeup artist Byrd Holland, now a Hollywood pro with decades of experience. Byrd should tell his full tale sometime; his rap sheet as an actor and makeup jockey covers a big hunk of fringe Hollywood, starting with Roger Corman's The Fast and the Furious in 1954. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural rates:
1. I was at the UCLA
film school when Blackburn was there but never met him. The school tended to be a bunch of isolated
students going in their separate directions; it was just becoming more socially oriented by the time
when I was leaving in 1976 - with organized parties (people learned to dance disco!) and genuine
openness. Before, if you had access to an influential professor or good equipment from the tech
department, you kept it quiet. Although there was a hardcore of Melnitz rats who ground out good
work while at school (sometimes cheating by shooting cheap commercial features when they were
supposed to be doing school projects), a great number of students spent very little time with cameras.
Blackburn must have been one of those who realized his filmic ambitions lay elsewhere; and he
certainly proved it.