Saturday, October 25, 2014

Night Bus to Astaroth

Cheryl Smith in Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973, directed by Richard Blackburn) is one of those odd little films orphaned by the business of movies only to take on a weird kind of half-life as time goes on while other kinds of films in similar straits fade entirely from memory. The horror genre is in part built on a foundation of such movies. The hororr movie acts as a collective unconscious for the medium, so it doesn't really forget anything. I don't want to suggest that Lemora is a foundational film in the genre, or even that it's any kind of unsung masterpiece. It's not. It is a singular experience unto itself, though, one that defies easy categorization.

The story here finds Lila Lee, church-singing poster child for innocence and light, daughter of a father who murdered her mother, going on a kind of vision quest to grant her father Christian forgiveness. She hears that her father has taken it on the lam to the mysterious town of Astaroth, and she heads out on a night journey to find him. Astaroth, it seems, is besieged by degenerate victims of some mysterious disease. Lording over the town is Lemora, a tall, elegant woman with whose interest in Lila is less than chaste, even as she positions herself as a maternal figure toward her. Lemora, it seems, is a vampire, and she's intent on seducing Lila into her dark embrace...

Lemora vanished after its original paltry release as a regional feature in California drive-ins. For many long years, it was more a rumor than something that could be seen and appreciated. For a time, it was thought to be lost. I don't ever remember seeing it on bootleg, though I suppose it might have been offered by somebody. Its reappearance on DVD is surprising for a film with no real commercial history, but money isn't a reliable yardstick of quality. Lemora was cheap, that's for sure, but it manages to stick in the mind anyway, like a meme welling up from the bottom of the cinematic massmind.  There's definitely something keeping it alive after all these years.

Lemora is a type of film constructed of elements lying around the floor of the genre factory at the time it was made. It's a mash-up at its core, perhaps constructed with the 1973 drive-in market in mind. There are elements of the period crime film (all the rage at the time after the success of Bonnie and Clyde), the hicksploitation film, the lesbian vampire film,  Lovecraftiana, and the Christsploitation film. Looked at with a more gimlet eye, it would be easy to view its assemblage of tropes as cynical, but that would do the film an injustice. This is a first film by director Richard Blackburn, and like many another filmmaker embarking upon a first film, Blackburn also brings to the project a naive, "lets put on a show" enthusiasm. Like many films at the cusp between the amateur and the professional, there's sometimes a sense of discovery, as if the filmmakers are inventing cinema anew, if only in their own minds. This isn't a criticism, by the way. Naivety often goes hand in hand with creativity, and the results can be startling. What this film makes of its tropes is a dream narrative that functions more as a journey from innocence to experience than it does as a horror movie executed for shock value. It's more oneiric elements may be the result of filmmakers not entirely sure of the language of film, or hamstrung by budget, or whatever, but like other films that persist in this kind of twilight world, Lemora turns these things into a virtue.

Cheryl Smith in Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

Blackburn is fortunate, too, in his choice of stars. Cheryl Smith--17 at the time and not yet "Rainbeaux" Smith, exploitation diva and drug casualty--holds the screen as an image of purity that the world seeks to defile. I can't say that she gives a good performance--she doesn't--so much as she manages to function as an icon. Smith had just enough movie star charisma for this, and Blackburn emphasizes this by shooting her as a living version of the Phial of Galadriel, a light in dark places. Leslie Gilb is less formidable as Lemora herself, in part because the role is underwritten, but also because there's not a lot of variety in her performance. She's mostly a visual element, whose cheekbones lend her face a vulpine, predatory aspect, over and above her actual performance.

Leslie Gilb in Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

The title of the film frames it as a fairy tale, and Lemora certainly feels like a fairy tale most of the time, or a fable if you will. The town of Astaroth is a piece of unreal estate straight from the Gothic imagination that has no real correlation to anywhere real in the United States or elsewhere. The film appoints its setting with a dark castle and monstrous peasants and an evil queen. Like some variants of the familiar Grimms' fairy tales, this is a tale of sexual awakening, further plunging it down the psychosexual rabbit hole of the Gothic. This also functions as a cautionary tale for good Christians. The world outside its Church walls is one of licentiousness and sin, drawn with the broadest of strokes, and Astaroth is a damnation. Perhaps owing to the multitude of tropes on display in this movie, there are also multiple subtexts vying for dominance. This should result in incoherence--and sometimes it does--but it also provides the film with a hothouse ambiance, the better to cultivate strange blooms from the soil of its id. Sometimes, those flowers are beautiful.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 14

First Time Viewings: 9

Around the Web:

Kevin at For It Is Man's Number gets chills from The Uninvited (1944).

Scott at Blasphemous Tomes takes a swim in The Canal.

Tim at The Other Side stays in a vampiric vein, though he's disappointed by the new edition of  Twins of Evil.

Dr. AC's latest roundup at Horror 101 has some issues with the documentary about Nightbreed on the new Shout Factory disc, and Spielberg's War of the Worlds, but has nice things to say about a trio of lesser films, including your humble bloginatrix's guilty pleasure, Squirm.

Patreon Logo
I'm trying out Patreon as a means of funding my blogs. They don't have a widget yet, so this link will just have to do. If you like my writing and art and if you'd like to support Krell Laboratories and Christianne's Art and Comics, please come on over and pledge. Thanks.

No comments: