I was unaware as I was researching this film that it had been banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for 21 years. “Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural” is an allegory, also a weird and eerie fairy tale but with its hints of pedophilia, lesbianism, vampirism, adultery, perhaps cannibalism and budding sexuality I suppose I can imagine what the Catholic Legion got all in a tizzy about. But it is still a “Child’s Tale”.
“Lemora”, which is set in the South in the 1930s, is the story of Lila Lee (Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith), the Singin’ Angel, whose father Alvin Lee has murdered Lila’s mother and her lover and is on the lam. Lila is taken in by the local, and single, Reverend Mueller (writer and director Richard Blackburn) and used as an example before his all-female (hmmmm…) congregation that good can come from evil. One day, Lila receives a mysterious letter from “Lemora” saying that her father is dying and wishes to see his daughter one last time and repent for his many sins. Being the good little Christian she is, Lila runs away to see her father and on the way, encounters an increasing amount of depravity and weirdness. Prostitutes in red-lit windows, men beating women outside of bars, drunks urinating in the street, the man selling her bus ticket offering her candy – Lila is the paragon of virtue in a violent, sick world.
She sets off on her lone bus ride to the isolated town of Asteroth where she was told her father was but on the way, the bus is attacked by ghouls who drag the bus driver off and Lila is left to try and drive the bus herself, only to plow into a tree. When she awakes, she is imprisoned in a decrepit stone room with one window through which she can see a beautiful but eerie mansion nearby. An old witch-like woman (Maxine Ballantyne) brings food to Lila and frightens her by singing an old mountain song about beauty and death. Some time passes and Lila is visited by some children outside her prison who tease her and finally, having had enough of all this, she ambushes the old woman and takes off, hiding under the mansion while the old woman searches for her.
Her hiding place soon discovered, she finally makes the acquaintance of the frighteningly pale yet beautiful Lemora (Lesley Gilb) who treats her kindly, almost like the mother Lila never really knew, and Lila’s initial reticence about Lemora’s oddness melts. She finds that the children who teased her while she was in the stone building are Lemora’s “charges” although there is something distinctly odd about them as well. Lila joins Lemora and the children for “storytime” and is given something to drink which causes what Lila thinks are hallucinations and in another scene, when Lila is shown to her room, she is left a plate of raw meat which she greedily (and disgustingly) devours for some reason.
The “infamous” scene where Lemora bathes Lila is nothing salacious although it is interesting to note that Cheryl Smith was 17 when she very effectively played the 12 year old Lila. It’s noticeable but not blatantly (but for you women out there who have ever had to have your breasts bound – OUCH!).
Slowly, Lila comes to realize that Lemora and her family are not what they seem and that her father has, in fact, become one of Lemora’s ghouls. After spying through a window and seeing Lemora bite the throat of a new child, Lila runs away and here the movie gets a little jumbled. There’s a creepy chase scene through the woods and through some abandoned buildings, Lila hides in a coffin being transported for some purpose, the ghouls do battle with an army of vampires that seem to appear out of nowhere and Reverend Mueller, who has been searching for Lila ever since he realized she had run away, finally shows up. The ending is very interesting and not what I expected. I would be curious to know what other viewers think of it.
The setting, a historic mansion in Pomona, California (unfortunately, although set in the South, the movie was filmed in California), the gorgeous costumes, particularly Lemora’s, the vintage cars, the production design are all great considering it was the early 70s and this was a low-budget film. The makeup of the ghouls won’t disturb George Romero’s sleep any and if you listen to the commentary on the Synapse DVD by director/writer/actor Richard Blackburn, actress Lesley Gilb and producer Robert Fern, you will get some great inside scoop on how many of the effects were done – some are hilariously “low-rent”. There is also a still gallery of some rare on-set continuity shots.
Unfortunately for the world of exploitation film, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, who starred in such films as “Caged Heat”, “The Swinging Cheerleaders” and “Massacre at Central High” died in 2002 at the age of 47 from complications of years of drug abuse. The innocence of Lila Lee sadly didn’t cast its influential shadow over Cheryl’s off-screen life.