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  Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural little girl lost
Year: 1973
Director: Richard Blackburn
Stars: Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith, Lesley Gilb, Richard Blackburn, Hy Pyke
Genre: Horror, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 3 votes)
Review: Possibly the greatest horror movie you’ve never heard of. This extraordinary dark fairytale of innocence, sexuality, vampires, gangsters and beast men is sadly, the only feature film made by triple-threat Richard Blackburn, later the co-writer of cult black comedy Eating Raoul (1982). A true low-budget wonder, for all its rough edges this film enraptures with a richly evocative, dreamy ambience and weaves a captivating spell.

Told from its teenage heroine’s point of view, our story takes place in the Depression-era South, where young Lila Lee (Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith) is heralded as the “singing angel” at her local Baptist church. Estranged from her father, a violent mobster wanted for triple murder, the wide-eyed waif resides under the care of a young Reverend (Richard Blackburn), who sweats and shivers with barely contained lust for her. A mysterious letter informs Lila her hitherto elusive father is gravely ill and begging for forgiveness. So she sets off on an eerie, nocturnal journey from the shadowy town where sweaty grotesques leer suggestively from street corners, to a harrowing bus ride through a haunted forest where monsters lurk in the dark.

Blackburn draws upon classic horror iconography, as when a giant pair of demon eyes hovers in the sky recalling White Zombie (1932) or the forest-dwelling “wood ghouls” evoke the shambling, beast men from Island of Lost Souls (1932), while Robert Caramico (who shot Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1976)) and Jean-Pierre Geuens’ lighting is simultaneously garish and elegant in a way that foreshadows Suspiria (1977). Yet, Blackburn’s foremost influences are literary, including H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth”, Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. The creepy bus driver (a brilliantly unsettling turn from Hy Pyke) tells Lila an epidemic “gave folks that weird Asteroth look” and they now roam the woods as savage beasts.

Standing at the heart of the forest is a spooky, old house where elegant, undead Lemora (Lesley Gilb - mesmerizing in her only film role) presides over her family including a witchlike housekeeper and playful, vampire kids in fancy dress. This maternal vampire queen spawned two monster races - the aristocratic, black clad Asterothans and the bestial wood ghouls - who now wage war against each other, and keeps imprisoned in a locked room, the drooling, ravenous man-beast that was once Lila’s father. Slowly, patiently, Lemora seduces innocent Lila into becoming her vampire princess, with snacks of bloody meat, a playful bath time sex play (which tips its hat to The Vampire Lovers (1970), but emerges far more understated and sensual), and an ancient cosmic ritual/redemptive battle between the monster factions. Meanwhile, the Reverend makes his way to Asteroth, hoping to save his young ward…

Part art film, part exploitation, Lemora sees Blackburn draw from his childhood memories of growing up in the rural South. The battle between torch-bearing Asterothans and the wood ghouls raises the ghost of old conflicts between masters and slaves on rural plantations, while the Baptist church service and backwoods folklore illustrate the rich contrasts of the South. Beautiful sexploitation starlet, Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith gives a deeply affecting performance that both engages our sympathies and invokes the palpably erotic allure of an innocent yearning to break free. With the exception of Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), she never appeared in anything this good again, but remained an engaging presence in sexploitation fare before her untimely death in 2002.

The film falters slightly near the conclusion, which accuses Lila of being a hypocritical liar who encourages lust in others - something we get no sense of from Smith’s perfectly pitched sincerity. However, as Lemora emerges as a warm, maternal protector, her eagerness to raise Lila as her protégé comes across as almost wholesome when compared to the lecherous preacher. In fact, though the conclusion features a nod to The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), one is tempted to read it as a happy ending, with Lila no longer a slave to would-be ravishers, but part of a loving family and in control her own destiny.

The 1930s setting and creepy, fairytale ambience lend it a certain timeless quality, which is probably why this film has endured years of misfortune to emerge a forgotten gem. Apparently, the Catholic Church slapped it with a “condemned” rating, but speaking as a Catholic, one finds this nuanced, intelligent and inspirational horror fare.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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