I’ve used the term “fairytale for grownups” before when referring to some movies, although this is I think the first time I’ll be using it in reference to a live-action film. Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, despite the title, is definitely a fairytale for grownups in mood and theme. It’s not for kids; younger children will probably have the living daylights scared out of them, although teens will be able to handle it fine. What adults will probably find most disturbing is the explicitly delineated child-in-peril plotline — and Lemora goes far beyond mere peril, especially at its startling conclusion.
The story’s deceptively simple. Lila Lee (cult actress Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, in a very rare childhood appearance) is the daughter of criminal-on-the-lam Alvin Lee (William Whitton). Lila and her father have been estranged for some time; at the opening of the film, she’s living with a preacher (director Blackburn, in a very enjoyable performance) who seems to be constantly fighting back impure thoughts about his adopted daughter. One night, after brutally murdering his wife and the guy she was in bed with, Alvin is spirited away by strange robed and hooded figures, and Lila later receives a letter informing her that her father is sick and near death.
Lila Lee, daughter of an infamous criminal, leaves her adopted father, a preacher,
to seek out her real father and offer him forgiveness.
Lila may be living in righteous fear of the Lord, but that doesn’t stop her from sneaking away from her adoptive father (but not before penning him a note), buying a bus ticket, and heading out to see him herself. She plans on forgiving him for all the evil he’s done; even if he is a “bad man,” you only have one father. It isn’t long before she looks like she’s regretting her decision; the bus station is riddled with unsavory characters, the ticket-seller smiles a little too broadly at her, and the bus itself is attacked by strange little creatures that drag the driver out the side window. Lila flees in horror, and before long finds herself in a strange house owned by the woman who appears to have abducted Alvin.
This woman is Lemora, of course, and after keeping Lila locked up, she explains: “That wasn’t to keep you in. That was to keep other things out.” Lemora has taken a strange interest in Lila and her father, and keeps many of the same strange creatures as housepets…or maybe guards? It’s not clear what she wants from Lila and her father; he bathes her and talks to her tenderly, and has Dad chained up in the other room — “until his disease can be cured.” What she’s talking about only becomes clear after Lila attempts to escape again and runs a gauntlet of monsters that seem to ooze right out of the shadows…and once it does become clear, the meaning of everything we’ve seen has twice the impact.
Lemora is loaded with gorgeous atmosphere, doubly impressive given the movie’s tiny budget and first-time director. Blackburn uses black lighting and many extremes of color — red and blue, mostly — to saturate the screen and give the film a lurid, otherworldly feel. Lemora (Lesley Gilb) often gets photographed with the same color-saturated lighting, making her odd-looking features stand out all the more. Ditto Lila, who goes through a transformation that can be best described as controversial (without spoiling anything). I also liked the careful use of sound design; at one point there’s a mosquito-like synthesizer drone on the soundtrack that does a neat job of shaking us up when we most need it.
One could compile a book-sized list of all the now-classic films that had to leave the country of their origin to find recognition; Lemora belongs on that list. Originally released in 1972 and shot on a tiny budget by one-time director and sometime actor Richard Blackburn, Lemora disappeared almost immediately after its release but gained a tiny and reverent cult audience. The camera negatives for the film were thought to be lost for over thirty years, and Blackburn and producer Robert Fern sold off their stake in the film for quick cash when it bombed commercially.
After that, the movie only surfaced during the very occasional festival screening, or on TV (under the misleading title Lemora, the Lady Dracula), and was kept alive thanks to tape-traders and word-of-mouth. About the only place where the movie made a sizeable splash was France, where critics dissected the movie’s range of influences (everything from The Night of the Hunter, a perennial favorite of mine, to J.M. Barrie and H.P. Lovecraft). They didn’t see a chintzy little horror movie, but an elegant little chiller as seen through the mind of a youngster, one that makes the most from the least. I love running into movies like this.