Most films never cause half the furor as “Lemora” did. The Catholic League of Decency (a now-absorbed organization with the joke-tempting acronym of CLOD) went on the warpath when this flick appeared. Got it pretty much banned, except in France where it attained some cult status. Later folks re-discovered it in the 1990s.
But why? An examination of the plot pretty much explains everything, especially among those with little tolerance for noticing darkness. The movie’s central character, Lila Lee, has an angelic voice which helps her guardian the Reverend in his work (this unnamed character is played by the writer/director Richard Blackburn). Her father, however, remains a notorious gangster who recently escaped the police. Responding to a letter from him, the thirteen-year-old girl runs away. She’s soon on a bus to a strange town called Asteroth, isolated and feared. Inhabitants, she’s warned, eventually take on the dreaded ‘Asteroth Look.’ Yes, Mr. Blackburn read and admired H.P.Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
In Asteroth, she meets Lemora (Lesley Taplin, who never achieved stardom but evidently had a rich career before her death in a car accident April 2009), a regal and imperious woman with a Victorian era home (this story takes place in Prohibition). But Lemora hides a secret. More than one. She in fact makes up the heart of web of secrets. Lemora is a vampire, Asteroth itself torn between two factions of the undead. The mutated ones, feral and fierce, seek to destroy Lemora’s kind. Meanwhile, Lila’s father remains a prisoner, his blood feeding Lemora. Thus she has lured the girl here, to be welcomed into Lemora’s arms, slaking the vampire’s thirst and (it is strongly hinted) her lust. The Reverend meanwhile searches for Lila, his own desires for the pubescent girl held in check. Or at least until he shows in the war-ravaged town after what looks like the final battle. Lila rushes to him, seeks to kiss him. He only resists for a little while — then she pierces his throat with her fangs!
Child vampires are creepy. Girl-child vampires tend to be creepier still. Throw in lesbian pedophilia into the brew, it isn’t too hard to imagine how many buttons got pressed in censors’ heads by this flick. A minister giving into his own pedophile desires long enough to be victimized by a child vampire turned bloodthirsty seductress — yeah, no shock there.
On the other hand, Cheryl ‘Rainbeaux’ Smith was hardly a thirteen-year-old. She looks very young, but that remains an illusion of angles and shadow. According to a making-of documentary, some investors were present while the bathtub scene was being filmed. When Smith stood up, one wise-cracked “She doesn’t look like a little girl to me!”
Blackburn lucked out with Smith and Taplin (then called Gibb) both. Alone of the cast they seemed capable of approaching the work as he intended. Make-up remained poor, lighting almost non-existent, some sets quite pathetic. By any standards short of Ed Wood, “Lemora” had a tiny budget and it usually showed. What makes the film memorable is that just enough quality remained, especially in the writing, to lift it above schlock level. Its subject matter might easily wallowed in the puerile, yet what we find is a genuinely erotic dream — a nightmare whose monsters are more than fanged mutants. The glimpse of a darkness one cannot escape, but at best can only accidentally avoid by never attracting its attention, echoes its Lovecraftian roots. It also haunts, disturbs, compels.
Which is likely why CLOD really got their collective panties in a twist. Pure porn or flat-out exploitation rarely attracts the righteous indignation of such, at least not as much as actual art that looks at what folks like that intend on ignoring. They don’t want a world where ministers, even good ministers, might find an underage girl intensely sexually attractive. Neither do they want to admit innocence and good intentions are sufficient defenses against corruption. If there is decadent evil in the world, it dwells in the city, not in the decent rural communities of small town America. Luck is never on the side of the Devil. Child rapists look evil. They certainly never get away with crimes like this. Horrors don’t stalk the world all around us, devouring those unfortunates who wander too close. Almost no one looks at children with lust. Those who do are modern, not old-fashioned.
Yeah, right. But not in “Lemora.” No, not even a little bit.
Mind you, the flick has its problems. A battle sequence ended up cut, which gives the climax a twist that hardly makes any sense. The actual end is also quite confusing. Did Lila dream all of this? Did she have a vision of her future? Or are we having one? Is the tag a flashback — or has Lila brought Lemora with her into the city to start preying upon the Reverend’s parishioners? In other words, has the Church itself become a den of predatory evil?
Given events of the last few years, one might think this last possibility especially irksome to those who took it upon themselves to censor in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. But if preserved, film out lives any single human being or even group. Seems doubtful the equivalent of CLOD today would have anything positive to say about “Lemora.” But you can rent or buy your own copy with little trouble. Hundreds of equally cheap vampire movies evaporated like countless movie Draculas. This one survived, because it doesn’t just shock. It manages to disturb. Not simply titillate but provoke.