October 3, 2007

Lemora: A Child's Tale Of The Supernatural (Blackburn, 1973)

“We are one and the same, and until you realize that, you can never be happy.”

The Vampire mythos has served as one of the foundations of cinematic horror from its very beginnings. Since his debut in F.W. Murnau’s seminal horror masterpiece Nosferatu, the most famous screen vampire, Count Dracula, has appeared in countless film and television productions. Despite the incredible proliferation of vampirism in cinema, I am certain that there has never been a Vampire film quite like Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural.

An undeniable cult item – the film received only a limited theatrical release in 1975, two years after its completion, was banned by the Catholic League of Decency, and languished in obscurity for nearly two decades until it was released on video in the mid-90’s – Lemora thrills in the way that only a cult item can. An initial viewing of Blackburn’s film, bathed in ethereal midnight blues and inky blacks (punctuated occasionally by blasts of blood red), is invariably accompanied by a sense of discovery, the feeling of unearthing cinematic “buried treasure.”

A vampire film with a stark lesbian undercurrent, steeped in Catholicism, and filtered through the prisms of Freudian & Lacanian psychology, Lemora is a startlingly original creation. Set in the prohibition era, the film follows the virginal 13-year-old “singing angel” Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith) on a macabre odyssey to see her dying gangster father in the mysterious town of Asteroth (one of the film’s highlights is the sinister bus ride to the aforementioned town). A strange, Southern Gothic fever dream (the film has been aptly described as an adult fairytale) and a sly, potent allegory of sexual repression and awakening (not to mention gender politics), Blackburn’s film (his only directorial effort) is a truly singular, visionary work of horror cinema.

Now, before I go too far, or indulge myself in hyperbole, a bit of honesty is in order. Those of you lacking a fair bit of experience with horror cinema, and probably more pertinently low-budget filmmaking, may not appreciate Lemora to the same degree as I do. It is, without a doubt, a cheaply made film, as evidenced by the shoddy (though strangely creepy) make-up effects. And excepting Smith, who, as the protagonist Lila, glides through the film with a hypnotizing somnambulant grace, concessions must be made for the crude performances.

It is a testament then to the strength and persistence of Blackburn’s vision, that in the face of these noticeable shortcomings, Lemora still emerges as an exceptional film, one that only engenders greater esteem in retrospect. Budgetary constraints never seem to get in the way of the film’s lofty aspirations, and though Blackburn only rarely taps directly into our fear nerve, the bizarre and pervasive ambiance he orchestrates floats like a spectre in the mind. The world he creates generates a brilliant sense of unease and uncertainty, and this is the film’s true accomplishment. In the final analysis, Lemora remains as ambitious and unusual an entry into the horror pantheon as you are ever likely to find.

Film: A-/B+
Scare Factor: C-

View Date: 10/2
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #3

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