If you don't agree with Judge Paul Corupe's review of this film, he'll force-feed you spiders and make you his butt-monkey.
"If you let her escape, I'll make you wish you could die!"—Lemora (LG)
Although I've never been much of a fan of vampire films, Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is almost exceptional enough for me to give the entire genre a deserved second look. Richard Blackburn's sole directorial credit is a haunting, dark fantasy of religion and sexual repression set against a backdrop of 1930s southern gothic that has been called one of the finest vampire films of all time. Few were willing (or able) to challenge that pronouncement, as Lemora has been plagued by inconsistent distribution from the day it was released, and those lucky enough to have seen it on late night TV or on poor quality home video releases became the self-appointed guardians of the film's cult following. Synapse's long-awaited restoration and DVD release of Lemora is a sigh of relief for those that have attempted to hunt down rare copies based on a few lingering memories and an absolute revelation for those that have never experienced the film before.
Facts of the Case
When she gets a letter advising her that her dying mobster father is under the care of a mysterious woman named Lemora (Lesley Gilb), 13-year-old choir singer Lila Lee (cult sensation Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, Massacre at Central High) steals away from her guardian, the church Reverend (Richard Blackburn), and begins her journey. As she makes her way to the nearby town of Asteroth, the seemingly incorruptible Lila witnesses all manner of sinful living, but that's nothing in comparison to the sight of a strange race of beast-men pawing at the windows of her bus. On arriving at Lemora's house, Lila is inexplicably locked up in a cell by an old crone (Maxine Ballantyne). When she is finally allowed to enter the faded Victorian mansion, Lila learns the fate of her father and Lemora's sinister and lustful plans for her own future.
Drive-in outfit American International Pictures revisited the vampire film in the early 1970s with the popular Count Yorga, Vampire and Blacula franchises, which sparked a short-lived renaissance of old fashioned blood-sucking fun. With Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, Blackburn hoped to cash in on the renewed interest in vampires while making his own unique contribution to the time-tested genre. Although few would have the opportunity to see it, he was ultimately successful in crafting Lemora, an original and memorable film that remains quite distinct from its undead brethren.
Blending the innocence of childhood fables like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel with the literary horror tradition of writers including H.G. Wells, Sheridan LeFanu, and H.P. Lovecraft, Lemora is a vampire film rebuilt from the ground up. Readers will notice that Blackburn does draw heavily on Bram Stoker's Dracula, even to the point of borrowing several plot points, but the film more often resembles the depression-era moodiness of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter than any film starring Bela Lugosi. As such, Blackburn almost completely tosses out the shopping list of expected vampire clichés—nowhere in Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural will you find an ominous dirt-filled coffin, bat transformations, harems of scantily clad beauties with blood-soaked fangs, or eager crusaders for good armed with holy water or (God help us!) a crossbow. While dropping only a few telltale hints as to the true nature of his vampiric leading lady, Blackburn delves his audience into this rich nightmare world by breaking down Stoker's original text to its most base elements of sexual allegory and parasitical desire, and then wraps the whole film in the pretty pink trimmings of a coming-of-age story.
As she progresses on her journey to Asteroth, Lila Lee is subjected to the lecherous appetites of almost everyone she comes across, including the townspeople, the manic bus driver taken several notches over the top by the always comical Hy Pyke (Dolemite), and even the Reverend, who visibly struggles with his desire for Lila, his "Singin' Angel." Although as a true innocent Lila seems blissfully unaware of the lascivious attention thrust on her from all directions, it is Lemora who yearns most for the young Christian, and thus proves to be the ultimate test of her virtue. Gilb's portrayal of the titular character is particularly striking, effortlessly balancing eroticism and repugnance in each swoop of her floor-length gown.
The strong sexual undercurrents in the film immediately gave rise to a rumor that the film was given a "Condemned" rating by the Catholic Legion of Decency, a story that Blackburn himself is unable to confirm or deny. However, because the dark religious sentiment and pedophilic undertones boil under the surface in Lemora—most notably in a disturbing but chaste sequence that has Lemora bathing Lila—the film managed to sneak by the MPAA with a PG rating.
Lemora may have sprung up from the same low-budget, labor of love origins as now-classic horror like Night of the Living Dead and Two Thousand Maniacs, but where those films embrace their threadbare atmosphere and weave terror within gritty, straightforward cinematography, Lemora takes a slightly different route. This film completely transcends its backyard production pedigree and manages to project a lush, unrelentingly sinister atmosphere. Thick with shabby Victorian moodiness, Lemora is simply an amazing feat of shoestring art direction by Sterling Franck, who infuses the film with a waking dream quality that ultimately gives the film its power to spellbind viewers.
That Lemora is so persistently eerie may still surprise those who have seen the film before, as never before has the film been as clearly rendered as with this stunning transfer from Synapse. The night exteriors are luminescent with cold blues and other subtle lighting techniques that continue to give the film a unique personality. Detail previously lost in multi-generation VHS copies is now crystal clear. A little grain is visible now and again, but Synapse's restoration on the film is nothing less than astonishing. The mono soundtrack hasn't received quite as much loving treatment, but it is more than adequate for this presentation, free of audio artifacts and generally clear in terms of dialogue.
Extras are a little thin, but those who have spent years trying to track down a copy of the film will be more than happy with what's here. In addition to the original script accessible in your DVD-ROM drive and a still gallery mostly comprised of continuity photos, Lemora features an enlightening and wholly entertaining commentary track from Richard Blackburn, Lesley Gilb, and producer Robert Fern. Although not too much information is revealed about Cheryl Smith, the lively conversation has a wealth of amusing anecdotes about the making of the film and the rumors that have surrounded it. This track makes for a fascinating listen, and should not be skipped.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural generally does an amazing job at exceeding its budget, there are several moments in the film that are compromised by the common pitfalls of b-filmmaking. The monster make-up on the beast men is kept shadowy and spooky through the first half of the film, but as the film progresses and the race of men step a little further out in the light, the effects are revealed to be fairly cheap, and not a little disappointing.
Style and substance maintain a pretty good relationship over the course of the film, at least until the plot begins to veer off the dirt road for the final, confusing 20 minutes. In his commentary, Blackburn vividly explains his intentions for these scenes, and ultimately why they didn't come together as planned, but on first viewing, the final reel seems slightly disjointed with the well-plotted and literate horror that preceded it.
This spectacular release of Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is just what the Lady Dracula herself so thirstily needed to regain some of her unholy powers over a new audience. Seek this one out, as Synapse has admirably pulled off their finest release ever with this truly overlooked gem.
This court upholds the previous judgment in the court of uncommon opinion—Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is one of the best vampire films ever made.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Richard Blackburn, Lesley Gilb, and Robert Fern
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