Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural
By Chris Hyde
September 20, 2004
Synapse Films unearths a chillingly colorful take from the horror vaults with Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural.
One of the great B-movie queens of the 1970s was one Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, a star-crossed actress who died under ignominious circumstances just a couple of years ago. In her heyday, she starred in some 30 films, many with titles like Caged Heat, The Swinging Cheerleaders and The Incredible Melting Man. But there’s something about Smith’s ethereal presence that nearly always transcended the lowbrow material in which she appeared; her waifish melancholia and stunning looks combining with a naturalistic dramatic style to form an actress who undoubtedly had gravitas. Smith’s performances generally have an enchanting quality of disconsolate beauty that make her riveting to watch no matter what the accompanying framework might be.
By 1973, Cheryl Smith had only appeared in two films, one of which was a short and the other an uncredited appearance in the George Hamilton Evel Knievel biopic. She then got her first major screen role when she was chosen to play the part of 13-year-old Lila Lee in Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural. Though 16 at the time of the production, Smith’s diminutive frame allowed her to pull off the act of playing a younger girl in a believable manner. For recently-graduated-UCLA-film-student-turned-first-time-director Richard Blackburn, casting Smith was an insightful move that would help turn his artsy take on the horror film into a cult classic.
A low budget epic inspired by writers like Machen and Lovecraft, the film sets its tale of vampirism in the 1930s American South and opens with a Dillingeresque gangster giving his wife and her illicit lover their just reward. Following this dispatching, the gunsel takes it on the lam and somehow ends up in a remote and gothic hamlet held in thrall by a sternly coiffed figure named Lemora (Leslie Gilb). But the hoodlum has also left behind a young daughter named Lila (Cheryl Smith), who has been taken in by a local preacher (played by director Blackburn) and turned into a seemingly angelic choir girl, regardless of her genetic makeup. But when she is sent word that her father wishes to be forgiven for all the iniquities that he has visited upon her, the youngster strikes out into the night to attempt reconciliation.
It’s here that innocent Lila’s world really begins to unravel, as her journey to find dad is fraught with leering ticket takers, hookers in red and rodentesque bus drivers. Things degenerate even further as she closes in on the decrepit mansion where pa is holed up, as the vehicle in which she’s traveling comes under siege by some ghoulish woods dwelling troglodytes and she then finds herself held captive by the mysterious shrouded figure of Lemora. The rest of the film plays out the Lemora-Lila dynamic, as the villainess attempts to turn the nubile nymph to the darker side of morality while her pastor mentor aimlessly searches the area for his missing charge.
Like many films of the vampire ilk, Lemora’s thematic basis revolves in the main around sexuality and repression. Lila’s virginal qualities are held up for examination as she skitters through her quest, caught between the standard poles of good and evil. Cheryl Smith’s restrained performance is truly one of the finer points of the film, with her realistic mode of acting giving the movie a weighty center around which its more expressionistic aspects can revolve. There’s lots here to recommend this one beyond the excellent turn put in by its petite star, though - from the spectacular color scheme of the camerawork to the impressive value of the production design and right on through the creepy characters who appear in nearly every scene, Lemora for the most part succeeds in its attempt to wed a slightly intellectualized approach to the genre film.
This is not to say that the production is not without its flaws, as inexperienced director Blackburn does make a few mistakes that ultimately mar the film’s effectiveness. Primary among these is the movie’s occasional stodginess, as the film unspools at a crawling pace that sometimes slows to near immobility. To be sure, this measured tone is overall a proper choice for this kind of a neo-Gothic—but in practice, Lemora reveals itself to be a project that could well have benefited from just a bit more action. Also slightly disappointing is the work of one-time film actress Leslie Gilb in the title role, whose stilted dramatic style is a bit less engaging than one might wish. Undoubtedly her character’s stiffness is supposed to enhance the contrast between her vampiric evil and the teetering naiveté of Lila, but there’s a slightly unsatisfying quality to her delivery that I felt in nearly every scene but the climactic one.
Still and all, this 30-year-old rarity really has far more going for it than many genre flicks and its 2004 reappearance is yet another DVD boon for bloodsucking buffs. Especially of note is the fact that Synapse managed to make their spectacular widescreen 1:78 to 1 transfer directly from the original negatives, although these materials had been thought lost for some three decades. The end result is one of the most visually gorgeous disks you’re likely to see anywhere this year, and as director Blackburn helped to oversee this work then its accuracy should be unquestioned. Also accompanying the feature is a full length commentary from a three person panel that includes Blackburn, Leslie Gilb and producer Robert Fern, which for all its rambling is still a nice extra to include. There’s a lot that’s been lost down the memory hole (especially by Blackburn, whose recall seems exceptionally weak) but plenty of interesting anecdotes are left that make the track a worthwhile one. Other extras here include production stills and rare continuity photos from the production, as well as a DVD-ROM bonus that contains the original shooting script.
If only for resurrecting an interesting film that has generally only been seen in degraded forms whose muddiness masked the high quality of the production, Synapse’s new release of Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural would be an exceptional piece of labor. But following the sad demise of its one true star, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, in October of 2002 this one now also stands as a fitting tribute to that fallen screen siren and serves as an ideal introduction to her body of work. For she rarely if ever looked more luminous or put in a more convincing dramatic performance than she does here in her major screen debut, and though the trappings are the sometimes tawdry milieu of the horror tale her seemingly fatal sadness brings to the production an aspect that helps elevate it above the norm. It’s a great tragedy that this talented woman could never quite escape the personal demons that haunted her and eventually took her from the world, but it’s at least a small comfort that her captivating presence has achieved some measure of longevity through the near immortality of modern technology. So here’s hoping that this wondrous actress has now somehow found the peace that forever escaped her in the corporeal world; and we who remain at least still have these shadows on screen to remind us just how special a person this Cheryl Smith really was.