Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural
by Barry Meyer
A real creeper that any horror fan should see. From Synapse Films.
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I don’t know - sometimes I get to feeling like an old coot, saying things like “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” But, then I get to looking at the stuff like Van Helsing, or Anacondas, or Resident Evil, I can’t help but think that some big studio people have gotten their heads stuck too far up their kiesters and somehow misread the definition of the word “horror.” Seems like they must’ve flipped to the A’s and read:
Ac-tion [Ak-shun], noun: a type of movie that costs big bucks and doesn’t provide any spooky chills.
Thank goodness there are some DVD distributors out there who are picking through the horror movie archives and digging up some quality spook gems to counter the big studio crap that litters the theater floors like sticky spilled pop.
Lemora is a ripe old chestnut, having been on the shelf for over 30 years, but it hasn’t been forgotten. Nor has it lost its eerie appeal. For a horror fan, like myself, I love coming across flicks like this - movies that I’ve heard talk about, via the usual genre rags or amongst horror aficionados, but never had the opportunity to enjoy myself. I had found an edited version of Lemora on an online bijou, retitled Lemora: Lady Dracula. But, once the tiny 3 inch screen popped up on my computer monitor, with its stuttered flip-card pacing, I decided I’d wait to see it some other, more appropriate time. Good thing I did. This movie was well worth the wait.
Lemora tells the surreal fairytale like story of an innocent young girl, Lila Lee (played by the late Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith), who receives word that her gangster father is on his deathbed and wants to see his daughter one more time before he dies. Lila sneaks away at night from her minister guardian (Richard Blackburn, who also writes and directs), embarking on a terrifying journey filled with Grimm Brother-esque terrors. Her bizarre journey leads her through dank city back-streets, teeming with nasty men who look upon the little girl with a degenerate eyes, and through the deep dark woods where furious half-man half-animal creatures attack. Finally, Lila ends up at a gothic mansion by the woods, where she meets the mysterious Lemora, her witchy housekeeper, and the brood of strange children for whom Lemora cares for. As the wide-eyed little girl awaits her chance to see her dying father, she investigates the old house and uncovers its dark and sinister secrets, putting her life and virtue in peril.
This creepy little tidbit is as full of chills as a haunted house is full of spider webs. Lesley Gilb, as Lemora, is just plain creepy, with her white pasty skin and monotone delivery. She was able to weave in a certain level of kinkiness to her evil, matriarchal character, without losing touch with the kids who the movie is aimed at. Her Disney-style sense of scariness was the perfect foil to Cheryl Smith’s wide-eyed wonder of a little girl lost in an Alice in Wonderland world. Smith’s almost freakish child-like frame and features - she was 18-years-old at the time — clearly helped in her convincing portrayal of someone 5 years her junior, but it was the lack of any real-life sophistication in her performance that even more convincing. Her naivety couldn’t have been more convincing if it were played up against and of the Fanning sisters.
What makes this film work so well is that director/writer Richard Blackburn understands how to shock people with out exploiting the gimmickry of the genre, like so many other films of the era were so willing to do (that’s not to say that exploitation doesn’t succeed in horror - films like Last House on the Left and Bay of Blood have proven that). Blackburn understood that sex appeal is a strong tool to the genre - after all, sex has become fairly inherent to horror, going all the way back to the early spook films of Universal - Dracula and Frankenstein. Even so, Blackburn recognizes that films can titillate the audience without pandering to easier, base devices. Though he used an 18-year-old actress (one who moved straight into sleazy sex comedies after filming Lemora) for the part of the 13-year-old heroine, he didn’t take advantage of the possibilities, especially in a scene where Lemora tries to seduce the young girl. Blackburn recognized that to use an actual child in such a scene would have been inappropriate, but he also recognized that the audience to whom the film was aimed at would be the age of the heroine. So, instead of manipulating the sex appeal, he designed the scene to be solely from the innocent point of view of the child - not that of the lecherous adult - while still getting the point of the scene across.
Why this film hasn’t become a classic - I don’t know. It has all the requisite elements - the darkly fascinating world full of curiosity and frights; the foreboding evil that threatens to corrupt the innocent; and the enthralling sense of wonderment to make it all seem real. Criminy! If I saw this movie as a kid, it would’ve stuck with me, keeping me up at night by hiding behind the door of my closet and haunting the dark corners of my bedroom.
Barry Meyer is a writer creeping in the dark corners of Jersey.
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