Monday, January 20, 2014

Movie Monday: Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

Take a trip with Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural!
Now, before we go on this horrible adventure, a clarification: the main character of this movie is not the title character; rather, it's a young girl named Lila Lee who will go on an extraordinary journey into darkness:
I saw Lemora many years ago, when a friend who had a print of it ran it for a small group of us video store veterans. I remembered it being very strange and moody and kinda hard to follow. So while it started one of my favorite genre girls, Cheryl Smith (more on her later), I sort of forgot about it.

The film remained fairly hard to find, so when Synapse Films released a deluxe version of the film on DVD, struck from a 35mm print, I decided to give it another shot, especially since over time many critics whose writing I admire regarded it as a lost mini-classic.
The plot of Lemora is pretty basic and only really tells a small part of the story: set during the Depression, Lila Lee is the daughter of a notorious gangster, who we see murdering his philandering wife. Lila has been taken in by the local preacher, a real fire-and-brimstone kinda guy. She sings in church in front of the congregation, who the preacher none-too-subtly admonishes for being a bunch of gossips when it comes to Lila.

Lila gets a letter from her father, who is dying, staying a few towns away. Lila sneaks off to visit him, and enters in a truly bizarre world of nightmarish shadows and creepy people. Lila is only thirteen, so danger seems to lurk at every turn: she buys a bus ticket from a too-friendly ticket agent, getting on a bus that seems to be running in the middle of the night, driven by another creepy, bizarre stranger:
You can't imagine how Lila is possibly going to survive in this dark, surrealistic world, but things are not always what they seem: despite the bus driver's weird ways, he turns out to be protective of the young girl. He warns of her of the bands of zombie-like people who roam the woods, at one point attacking the bus.

Lila is rescued by Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who takes a real liking to the young girl:
It is Lemora who summoned Lila, for motives not immediately apparent: is it to get Lila out of the grips of the preacher, to actually see her real father, or for something more nefarious?

Lila learns that there are two sets of vampires lurking about: one is a more human-looking bunch (like Lemora), the other is a monster-like group who prowl the streets attacking everyone they can get their hands (and fangs) on.

Now, while that is the basic plot, but there's really so much more to this movie than just that. Director Richard Blackburn creates a very off-putting world for poor little Lila to wander through; while there are recognizable things from our world like cars and buses and city streets, the swamp that the bus line runs through seems like a post-apocalyptic no-man's land, where there's no law and order, just monsters around every turn.

Almost every scene in the movie is shot in hues of blue or purple; we never see any sunlight, almost as if there is no day in these people's lives: it's permanent midnight once Lila goes off on her journey. It isn't until the preacher shows up at the end to find Lila that anyone seems to take any interest that a young girl is living with an older woman in a big creepy castle. Lemora is interested in Lila all right, but we're never sure what form that interest takes: it seems sort of sexual, but maybe it's not...

While I won't say Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is any sort of lost classic, it is a highly unique, weirdly-compelling trip through a child's nightmare. Sometimes its low budget and amateurish acting works against it, but director Blackburn clearly had a specific vision in mind (which he elaborates on during the audio commentary track), and was mostly able to pull it off.

Holding the movie's center is Cheryl Smith's starring role as Lila. I first discovered her when I was a very early teen on cable in a soft-core porn version of Cinderella; it was the first time I ever saw a lot of the stuff that goes on in that movie. It established a lifelong warm feeling for her, since she was so sweet and guileless, despite being in the middle of a softcore porn movie! She had a brief film career in the 70s and 80s, but continued problems with drugs led her to some time in prison, illness, and then an early death in 2002. Watching her in this movie only underscores that she was, in fact, quite talented as an actress; it's a real tragedy she had such a tough life. Watching the innocent Lila get drawn into this dark world, you can't help but think Cheryl took the same journey, as she got sucked into the meat grinder of Hollywood's hedonistic scene.

Lemora ends on a very ambiguous note: we're not sure what's happening exactly, which only gives the movie more of a dreamlike quality: did all this just really take place? In any case, Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys off-center horror and mystery; it's an interesting story, well told by a bunch of talented people with little money but a lot of skill at creeping you out.

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