Forgotten Films: Lemora, A Child’s Tale Of The Supernatural (1973)

To celebrate the synchronous June 6 birthdays of the drive-in theater and said venue’s 70’s diva, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, this unique, genuine cullt film seems like the perfect celluloid cake. Like so many others, I first encountered LEMORA, THE LADY DRACULA (one of its release titles) on late-nite television, in this case Bob Wilkins beloved “Creature Features” show. I was immediately intrigued and frightened by the film’s sordid, gothic atmosphere circa the 1930’s. The story deals with Lila Lee,  the angelic daughter of a missing gangster, who ends up the ward of a stern, represssed Baptist reverend. Through an occult turn of events, Lila is invited by the mysterious Lemora to come visit her father deep in the southern woods… but only if she comes at night…This nocturnal, nightmarish bus journey to Lemora’s vampiric lair is one of the most haunting segments in genre history, leaving its psychic imprint on everybody who saw it on TV or in the theater.

Writer/Director Richard Blackburn, a USC lad, creates a raw, poetic mysterioso ambiance obviously influenced by NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, particularly since the POV is that of Lila, the “Child” of the title. As in Charles Laughton’s wonderful classic, Blackburn favors expressionist shadows to convey a scary yet enchanting world, mirroring the tether betwixt innocence and temptation. The film sexualizes people’s reaction to Lila but not her. In that sense, Blackburn holds back on one of LEMORA’s most exploitable elements since repression is at the heart of the film, with every character unable to purge their urge, highlighted by the outrageously weird bus driver (Hy Pyke, who would later play Taffy the club owner in BLADE RUNNER!) and signified by the desires of the tempted reverend. Yet somehow Lila seems beyond their grasps, especially that of Lemora, memorably assayed by Lesly Gilb. There is no mystery established about what kind of creature Lemora is, you know immediately. But I like the various levels of vampirism that inhabit this twilight world.  The cinematography by Robert Caramico is positively Bava-esque with rich blues and reds, showcasing the truly inspired art direction. Even the lo-fi make-up effects work well within the budget confines. The lack of familiar studio tropes adds to the film’s creepy aura.

That Lila is played by the legendary drive-in diva, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, accounts for the character’s etherereality. Smith was a product of the free-wheelin’ 1970’s, allegedly gaining her nickname from the famed Rainbow Club on the Sunset Strip.  She became a mainstay, usually unclothed, in Jack Hill’s charming THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS and its unrelated sequel REVENGE OF THE CHEERLEADERS (pregnant to boot but touchingly included in the hijinks because the director wanted her in there. He knew.). She also appeared in the best women-in-prison film, Jonathan Demme’s CAGED HEAT and many other cult movies. Sadly, she had a major sub-plot in Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER that was later cut. Rainbeaux Smith had a troubled history and for more insight, here’s Chris Barbour’s wonderful account of his years knowing her, and perhaps the most moving tribute comes from our own Marc Edward Hueck, whose journey from fan to pallbearer at her funeral is essential reading. Quentin Tarantino aptly called her “a hippie Marilyn Monroe” and that’s about right. She’s natural yet magnetic, and though director Blackburn had trouble with her, he now admits that her underplaying was the best choice instead of typical horror movie histrionics. Her lack of constant fright belies that this is indeed a child’s tale and that sense of repellant curiousity plays into the film’s themes. This would make the perfect double bill with the similarly designed, VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970). 

LEMORA, A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL was released in a gorgeous remastered DVD by Synapse in 2004, giving us fans a chance to almost see the film for the first time, free of its shoddy television print and treatment. Obviously, it has not been forgotten by fans of unique genre offerings or the torchholders to the memory of Rainbeaux Smith. That she shares a birthday with the drive-in says it all. And as Lemora promised, she will indeed live forever…

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3 Responses to “Forgotten Films: Lemora, A Child’s Tale Of The Supernatural (1973)”

  1. Thank you for the link to my essay. That event has never left my side.

    Minor correction: REVENGE OF THE CHEERLEADERS was meant to be a sequel to an earlier film called THE CHEERLEADERS; it was not in any way related to or meant to capitalize on Hill’s SWINGING CHEERLEADERS even though she’s in it.

  2. […] Forgotten Films: Lemora, A Child's Tale Of The Supernatural (1974 … To celebrate the synchronous birthdays of the drive-in theater and said venue's 70′s diva, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, this unique, genuine cullt film seems like the perfect celluloid cake. Like so many others, I first . […]

  3. […] Happy Birthday to not only the Drive-In (born this day in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey) but to the woman who would act as a spacey muse to those giant screens across America under the stars. I’ve written more extensively about Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith in my essay on LEMORA (1973): […]

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