During the Prohibition era, 13-year-old Lila Lee is summoned by a letter to visit her injured father, a gangster, before he dies. She runs away from the Reverend, who has raised her and in whose church she has become well known as a singer, though her extraordinary beauty is beginning to attract attention as well. She ends up taking a bus to her father’s purported location, the strange town of Astaroth, where people have the “Astaroth Look.”
En route, Lila is menaced in a swamp by a band of mindless vampires who haunt the woods and town. She is rescued by a mysterious woman named Lemora, who takes a fancy to her. It seems Lemora is the one who called the girl to her, though whether to protect or to corrupt her remains to be seen. Lemora takes Lila to an old house, where she bathes the girl and tries to soothe her. Exploring, Lila discovers the truth: Lemora is a vampire who feeds upon children and is holding her father captive. She is also the unofficial queen of the Astaroth vampires.
While trying to escape, Lila embarks on a nighttime journey through the town of Astaroth, learning in the process that there are two types of vampires there. The one faction is like Lemora herself, relatively human in behavior and appearance, while the others are mutated or perhaps regressed, far more feral in behavior and monstrous in form; and the two groups are at war. Meanwhile, the Reverend, who is seeking Lila, manages to retrace her steps.
After a climactic battle which leaves most of the vampires dead, Lila is forced to kill her own father, who has become one of the degenerates. As she weeps over his corpse, Lemora approaches her and offers her comfort by her vampire’s kiss. When the Reverend shows up not long after, he finds Lila willing, even eager to kiss him. He resists at first, then he gives in. That is when she drives her fangs into his throat and drains his blood, watched over by a smiling Lemora.
The film ends showing Lila singing again in church. Whether this was intended to indicate the story was a dream, a “flash forward” or that Lila returned as a vampire to the Church—or that the ending scene in the church is a flashback—is left ambiguous.
BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS Richard Blackburn on Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural
When looking back upon the horror films of the 1970s, one most readily remembers the landmark genre classics directed by filmmakers who would go on to lengthy careers in the horror field: Carpenter, Romero, Cronenberg, Craven. But that decade is probably most fascinating for the innumerable oddball low-budget individual achievements from directors who would not advance to long-term horror careers strange “one-shots” made possible by the decade’s hunger for independently made product for the grindhouse and drive-in circuits. Many of these film s are largely forgettable, but there remains a group of titles which have left indelible impressions on those who originally caught them on double bills or late-night TV broadcasts.
Films like John Hancock’s eerie Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Willard Huyck’s masterful Dead People (a.k.a. Messiah of Evil) and Bill Gunn’s brilliant Ganja and Hess are all superlative examples of the decade’s effective, offbeat chillers creepy, ethereal films with genuinely dreamlike tones and unforgettable imagery. Many of these singular achievements have languished in undeserved obscurity, but some have developed cult followings and within this category, it’s probably safe to say that director
Richard Blackburn’s 1973 Lemora — A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural has amassed the greatest legion of admirers. Visually, Lemora is also quite distinctive, with Blackburn lavishing obvious care (not always common among low-budget genre productions of the period) on his off-kilter compositions and a spare, expressionistic lighting style. But from a production standpoint, Lemora is a particular achievement, a marvel of low- budget craftsmanship. As Blackburn has observed, filmmakers are often warned not to attempt period-piece projects on non-existent funds, but he pulls this off expertly, creating a believable depiction of the 1920s American South entirely around contemporary Los Angeles.
But what most viewers take away from Lemora is admiration for the film’s creepy mood, its haunting, otherworldly tone. There is little to Lemora from a narrative point of view: The film follows young Lila Lee (Cheryl “Rainbeaux,” Smith) as she leaves her church surroundings in search of her gangster father, and ventures to the estate of the vampire Lemora (Lesley Gilb). But the bizarre encounters Lila endures in her travels, and her relationship with Lemora upon arrival, give the film a dreamlike atmosphere which has left a great impression on those who have thus far been lucky enough to see it.
Blackburn began Lemora, his feature directing debut, shortly after his graduation from the film program at UCLA. His determination to create an artful genre piece has given Lemora a place in horror film history but also contributed greatly to the film’s troubled original reception.
“Well, that artful approach was certainly my undoing,” he says today. “If I was going to make a horror film, I wanted it to be full of all this stuff that I read and liked in movies, so Lemora fell somewhere between exploitation and art. That was a problem on its initial release because nobody knew how to deal with it. Of course, there were plenty of other problems attendant to the film-making.”
To develop Lemora, Blackburn partnered with fellow UCLA film student Robert Fern, who served as the movie’s producer; to date, Lemora remains the only feature directing or producing credit for either. Blackburn reveals that the project was initiated with the same monetary concerns which governed many low-budget genre productions of the day: “Economically, the idea began when we thought that we could do a vampire film at that time the early ’70s because the Count Yorga movies had been done cheaply and made money. Because of those, we put together a proposal to do an inexpensive vampire movie.”
Yet Blackburn also admits that the film was indeed fueled by lofty artistic inspirations as much as cold financial motivations. “The two literary influences on the script were H.P. Lovecraft’s Shad- ow Over Innsmouth and Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People,’ ” he reveals. “I remember reading a review of the movie in Positif, and the French nailed those two big literary influences, which confounded me. They were very perceptive, I and I didn’t know anybody even knew this stuff! The cinematic influences were basically films about children in nighttime landscapes, like Night of the Hunter and Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet — it’s a ’50s Cinemascope film that I saw when I was living in Paris, and I still like it. There were probably lots of others, because I grew up watching all kinds of horror movies in the theaters and on early ‘horror host’ TV shows.”
Blackburn and Fern’s collaboration on Lemora was sparked by an affinity they shared in college. “We were the only two people at UCLA doing comedies as our student movies, and that was a bond,” Blackburn recalls. “Josef Von Sternberg was teaching at UCLA, and the only film he liked was Bob’s. At that time in the 1960s, everything there was ‘slice of life’ film-making, and we were the only ones doing artificial, stylized studio-type films.”
Fern recalls, “We were in the same film class as Jim Morrison, and we all did our movies around the same time, Richard and I got along terrifically, and he was so interested in Lovecraft that we thought a horror film would be a good idea. (With Lemora,) we I had grand designs: We wanted I it to be a totally magical child’s fairy tale, and to be on a level above all of the other visceral horror films.”
As Blackburn and Fern prepared their feature collaboration, finding the actors became critical. Although the casting of young Lila Lee necessitated a thorough search for the appropriate performer, the parts of the two adults battling for control of Lila’s eternal soul and moral rectitude the vampiric Lemora and Lila’s guardian, the Reverend were filled rather easily. The young man of the cloth was played by Blackburn himself. “Well, it Evil things come in small coffins. was just one more person we didn’t have to pay!” he laughs. “In hindsight, I think I looked too young for the role.”
Simultaneously directing and acting in Lemora presented certain problems for Blackburn, which were compounded by behind-the-scenes power struggles: “The first scene we did was where I give the sermon in the church, and that wasn’t a very good choice. But this needn’t have happened, and it was based on the AD, who was very experienced and wanted to take over the movie. He programmed it so I had to speak through him and couldn’t even talk to my crew. If you’re performing in a film that you’re also directing, you want to save your scenes until you’ve developed a rapport with the crew, but to start off on the first day doing both! But I didn’t know that, since I had never really directed a film before.”
Gilb came to the role of Lemora through her relationship with the producer. “I met Bob Fern during a six-month period in Los Angeles between my undergraduate and graduate work,” she recalls. “Bob was a screenwriter then as now, and he said that he would put me in a movie someday, and surprisingly he did. That conversation and our friendship was a couple of years before he was involved with Lemora, and when he called me about it, I was in a Ph.D program at Stanford in Theater Arts. Lemora became my ‘summer job,’ much to the amusement of my department. Dick Blackburn took me on faith; I at least looked right for the part.”
Indeed, although Gilb had limited acting experience prior to the film, both Blackburn and Fern cite her unique look as a major contributing factor to their casting decision. Gilb also notes that a specific element of the production helped her to shape an enigmatic character only vaguely delineated in the script. “I owe much of my performance to the costume Rosanna Norton created for me,” Gilb says. “Not only did that help me immensely to bridge the gap from college coed to lady vampire, but when I was wearing it, the crew responded completely differently than they had moments before when I was in street clothing. The power of that dress can’t be understated.”
Interview With Byrd Holland (Make Up Artist)
Describe some “out of the box” techniques you employed on Lemora.
BYRD HOLLAND: I sculpted a whole bunch of different prosthetic face pieces, and then I pulled them apart and used them on the ghouls. I numbered the pieces so that all the ghouls in the movie wouldn’t look the same. To keep inside the budget, chest plates were made out of liquid rubber, painted on male, bare-chested mannequins. I said to Richard Blackburn, the director, “We need to get fangs made for Lesley Gilb,” who played Lemora. “I know a dentist who can make an impression and will give us a break on the price.” But Richard didn’t have it in the budget. I said, “OK, I’ll work something out.”
So I took number one mortician’s wax, which is very hard, and I actually molded some fanged teeth on Lesley. It stayed on there, and for some reason it matched her real teeth. They looked terrific. I’d made her up like a vampire, and I said to Richard, “Let’s have a shot of her opening her mouth and going out of frame.” We did that, and I said, “We can do punch-in shots later when she’s actually doing the biting.” While the camera was in the same position, I had her lower her head off camera. I put blood all over those teeth, Richard called “Action!” and she raised her head back up to the camera. I hate to even talk about this a big time makeup artist using mortician’s wax for vampire teeth. But it worked!
I’m sure plenty can go horribly wrong when you’re trying to do a number of makeup FX on a low-budget movie.
HOLLAND: I always say to young people coming up in this business, “We’re working with people’s faces, and you have to be very careful. Make sure the person can act with this kind of special makeup. If you feel they can’t, it’s no disgrace to go to the director or producer and say, “This person is a little claustrophobic, and I don’t know if we can get through this show.” Well, that happened on Lemora. We were doing a casting of the leading man’s face, and as it was drying, he moved and cracked it. He said, “I’m claustrophobic, I can’t handle this.” I knew I had a problem because after his character gets bitten by the vampire, he was going to have to wear those pieces throughout the rest of the movie. So I talked with Richard, and he said, “What are we going to do?” I said, “It just so happens that you hired Bill Whitton, who is a stuntman and also an actor! And he’s a leading-man type. Since he was going to double the original actor anyhow, why don’t we just let him do it?” So he did.
Blackburn has stated that with Lemora, he tried to do much with too little.
HOLLAND: We never told him that, though. We just tried to give him what he needed. My deal for that picture was that after so many hours, I would get overtime. My union at that time, NABET, also had a travel time clause in its contract—if we went over a certain number of miles, we’d be on the clock. NABET had a 15-mile zone. When I passed the 15 miles, I was on the clock. We were shooting out in Pomona, so there was a lot of overtime. Richard’s father was a very honorable, nice man who really knocked himself out for his son to do that movie. He always made sure I got what I asked for. At the end of the shoot, he was paying people, and he said to me, “Byrd, I know you have some overtime here. How much do I owe you?” I tore up the overtime slip-“You owe me nothing.” Tears were in his eyes.
Lemora has become a cult favorite, partly due to the late Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith’s presence as young Lila Lee.
HOLLAND: I helped in picking Cheryl for that part. They brought in several young actresses and asked me, “Who do you think would be the best?” We ran tests on them, and I said, “I like (Cheryl), because she can work with no makeup. I don’t want to put any makeup on her.” “Why’s that?” “Because we need contrast from the way she is before she becomes a vampire and the way she is after she becomes a vampire.” From what I could see, she was a good actress also. She had a quietness that I thought would be very frightening once she turned into a vampire.
Introduction of Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith
The young, innocent Lila Lee became the lead-role debut for the young, and not so innocent, actress Smith. She would ultimately become one of the 1970s’ most prolific and appealing drive-in stars, appearing in genre fare like Massacre at Central High and The Incredible Melting Man as well as sex comedies such as Swinging Cheerleaders and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Her best and most prominent post-Lemora gigs are probably Jonathan Demme’s great Caged Heat and the adult musical version of Cinderella. Lemora started it all, however, and Blackburn remembers the distinctive quality which led to her casting.
“Cheryl Smith came to us through a cold casting call we sent out an advertisement, and she was just one of several people who came to our office in West Hollywood. Cheryl was about 17 at the time, and there were other actresses who were more accomplished, but Cheryl just had this incredible look that was perfect for the innocence we were trying to (convey). The funny thing was that she was not at all innocent,” laughs Blackburn. “For the record, Cheryl was on a lot of ahem chemicals at the time, and we had to take her to my father’s house to try and clean her up. Now, a lot of it was because she had some sort of condition and she was on painkillers. But some of that performance was just that she was kind of Novocained.
“She was later in one of the Cheech & Chong films, and I ran into Cheech Marin at a party, and we started talking about her, and how she had this somnambulistic quality and muted, natural delivery,” Blackburn continues. “I was always trying to get her to emote more. After the film came out, I went to the Deauxville Film Festival, and one of the officials told me he loved the film. He asked how I got such a great performance from Cheryl Smith, and I just lied through my teeth and said, ‘Well, she has a tendency to overact, but I did my best!’ That’s really all her.”
But while Blackburn and Fern are quick to point out the contrast between Smith’s naive onscreen persona and the actress’ more experienced lifestyle, Gilb who spent a good deal of time with Smith off the set sees it differently. “She wasn’t living in a naive world, but in terms of who she was, she was incredibly sweet, and very much like a little girl,” Gilb says.
“When I saw her (years later) with her little boy, that quality was still intact. She was basically raised on the Sunset Strip, but she was a good-hearted person and i was very touched by her. She wasn’t self abusive, she was just world-weary.”
In addition to Smith’s chemical dependencies (a problem which would tragically continue to haunt the actress in the two decades following her 1982 disappearance from movie screens), Blackburn had other on-set difficulties to surmount. “We had to shut down production for at least a week and regroup, because (the AD) had gotten to all these people who we couldn’t trust now, so we had to get some new crew and our sound guy took over as AD,” says Blackburn. “Also, it’s fairly common practice when you’re making your first film that you want to use your friends. But what you should really do is just get the most professional people you can you don’t know what you’re doing, but hopefully they do, and you can learn. So the cameraman was just a classmate of mine and Bob’s and he really couldn’t do this stuff, so we had to get another one as well. It was a very difficult shoot I was living on Pepto-Bismol trying to get through it.
“I had story boarded the film, and I threw those out after an hour and a half forget it, it was just too difficult,” Blackbum continues. “At the same time, the people at (developing lab) CFI said they had never seen so many setups on a low-budget film. I was trying to get all these shots, and it was very ambitious. In fact, when we were trying to find our AD, several of them said, ‘Hey, listen you can’t do this on your budget.’ The guy who told us what we wanted to hear, he then tried to take over the movie! And the three major mistakes you’re not supposed to do on a low-budget movie are night shooting, extensive make-up (created by Byrd Holland) and period pieces all of which we did.”
Fern admits that their lack of film-making experience often contributed to the on-set difficulties though he too cites the mutinous AD: “I must say that I was quite inept as a producer, and I had never done anything like that before,” Fern says. “But our AD did try to take over and sabotage the film. I remember the pizza rebellion — I had served pizza, and the whole crew started throwing it back at me, and then they wrote ‘Bob’s Big Boy’ on my car! We always thought that [the AD] had instigated that; he was fairly experienced. We had a French cameraman who loved Antonioni for the first half of the film, but it was too dark, so we had to replace him with some- one who could move much faster.”
“Stuff also took longer because of the whole period thing,” Fern continues. “It was a massive undertaking, because doing period was so hard: renting that old 1923 bus, using old cars and costumes. It was something one would never attempt again, because taking on all that atmosphere was so difficult for the budget we had.”
For years following Lemora’s release, it was often mistakenly reported that the film was shot in the Southern area in which the drama unfolds (Georgia has frequently been cited as a location). But though the film offers a convincing (albeit stylized) depiction of the American rural South, the production for obvious economic reasons was actually based in Blackburn and Fern’s LA environs.
“It was shot in the San Gabriel valley, around Pomona, and the weird warehouse at the end was actually a processing plant for fruit peelings in Upland,” Blackburn reveals. “We had to make all of that stand in for the South. The house (Lemora’s estate) is near Pomona. The furnishings were there, and it was a historical estate we were given there were actually people living there, and they just moved up to the second floor while we shot. This was before the ‘fresh air’ laws in California, and during shooting, the smog count would be so bad that I literally had to walk down the street to an air-conditioned gas station just to breathe. The air was killing me.”
When told of her director and producer’s complaints about the heat during the production, Gilb quips, “Well, they weren’t under a black wig, a head-to-toe black dress and 20 pounds of white makeup! It was hard for all of us, though.”
As difficult as the production of Lemora may have been, Blackburn soon learned that the most taxing obstacles facing independent filmmakers actually begin after the film has wrapped. “We previewed it, and it was a very bad premiere,” he says. “I was very depressed, and I thought it had all been wasted effort. I decided to write a novel based on it for some reason, and that didn’t work out either. The film went through three distributors, bounced around and then sort of disappeared.”
“There was a lot of money owed (by the filmmakers), so we decided to cut our losses, declared bankruptcy and let the distributor (Wakefield- Orloff) take it,” remembers Fern. “They were an advertising agency that had formed a distribution company that didn’t really work. But it’s a mystery how it ended up on television.”
The producer recalls the disappointment which followed the film’s initial release: “I don’t know how well all the layers of the film came out, and whether that part was totally successful. But it opened in the largest theater in Guam,” Fern laughs. “Since we raised the money from friends and backers, some of whom were in the South, we wrote a newsletter telling the backers what happened, and at the end, Blackburn wrote, ‘Lemora has opened in the largest theater in Guam!’ ”
But Lemora was not to remain a lost film indefinitely, and Blackburn remembers the pleasant surprise upon learning of the film’s gradual cult following. “I had forgotten all about it until I began to get little messages through the ether that there was interest in the movie, and people actually liked it,” says the director. “One time I was home working on a script, there was a knock on the door and some- one had traveled across the country with these glossies for me to sign. Then I got a call from someone who went down with a friend of his and rented a motel room in Norfolk because it was showing on a local TV station, and he recorded it off the TV monitor with a camcorder!” One of its early fans evidently put together The New York Times’ TV schedule; for years, a tiny rave would appear with the listing whenever Lemora aired.
Over the decades since its release, Lemora which at various points would be retitled Legendary Curse of Lemora, Lemora the Lady Dracula and ultimately just Lady Dracula has indeed developed a fervent and devoted following (like so many initially neglected American genre works, Lemora had actually been much appreciated in Europe prior to its Stateside rediscovery). In 1994, Moore Weo issued the movie on VHS, along with a limited print edition of Blackburn’s novelization. Over the last few years, Lemora also had a brief revival run at New York City’s Two Boots Den of Cin theater, a Philadelphia booking by Exhumed Films and a high-profile showing at Lincoln Center’s 2002 Scary Movies festival, alongside other ’70s indie standouts like Death Line and Deathdream.
“It’s unique,” says Blackburn of the reasons behind the film’s reappraisal and enduring appeal. “I know all the deficiencies of this movie the pacing, some of the casting. At one time, I joked that I wished it had been shot in Spanish, because they wouldn’t be able to tell how weak some of the acting was if it was in a language they couldn’t understand. Perhaps the foreign appreciation is because they can’t tell, and they just respond to the pictorial element. I also have a feeling that the French bless them don’t always review the movie they see, they review what’s intended in the film .
“But it does have a unique childlike quality, and if someone sees it, they’re not going to confuse it with another movie. And there’s enough subconscious material there that people can read stuff into it and enjoy it that way.”
Gilb considers Lemora’s cult status to be simply due to the film’s logical ultimate destination: “I think that’s what Robert and Richard wanted for it to begin with it was too weird for mainstream sensibilities,” says Gilb, who currently works for a documentary film company. “Film in general is very magical, and people’s personal chemistry gets into film and sometimes there are inadvertent qualities that audiences respond to I believe myself, Richard and Cheryl all had a ‘haunted’ quality, and that gave this film conscious and unconscious resonance.”
While Lemora remains the only credited directing achievement for Blackburn, he may be best-known for co-writing (and appearing in) director Paul Bartel’s cult hit Eating Raoul, a project that Blackburn also helped Bartel to shape from a directorial point of view. “Because Paul was the director and star, I would direct him, and I would direct people through him, and I did some coaching with the actors to get their delivery right,” Blackburn reveals. “When we were actually shooting, I would direct Paul intensively, to be his eyes, because he had a tendency to overreact. This is the reverse of the Cheryl (Smith) story, since I really did have to bring him down. I would say maybe a third to a quarter of the direction is mine.”
Blackburn was also Bartel’s collaborator on the long-mooted sequel to Eating Raoul, Bland Ambition, a project ultimately derailed by Bartel’s death in 2000. “That was a sad tale,” he says. “We finally had the money in place from England, and we had just started casting it when Paul died. We were excited about getting it working again, and it could’ve been just as successful as Eating Raoul, but I don’t know how it would be done now. I sent John Waters the script, and said, ‘John, I know you don’t want to do anything that you don’t write, but take a look at this,’ and he wrote back and said he would be in it if we ever got it made, but we were right he didn’t want to direct anything he didn’t write himself.”