It’s the 1930s, and thirteen-year-old Lila Lee, The Singin’ Angel, is on of the chief ornaments of her local Baptist Church. Her daddy is a notorious gangster on the run, but the kindly Reverend took her in, and Miss Lila has shown herself to be pure in mind and deed. Everything is just dandy until Lila gets a message from her father. He wants to see her, to ask her forgiveness. Being a good Christian girl, Lila knows it’s her duty to go to him. She hops on a bus (a remarkably ramshackle bus with an even more ramshackle driver) and sets off for the town of Asteroth. There she will find, not her father, but the vampire Lemora.
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is quite unlike the average American 1973 horror movie. It’s really a fairy tale, and like real fairy tales (as distinct from sanitised Disneyfied versions) it deals with serious issues, in this case awakening sexuality and the loss of innocence. And it deals with these issues intelligently and sensitively – don’t expect graphic sex or nudity, because there isn’t any. There’s nothing tacky or distasteful about the way this movie tackles its subject matter. The movies to compare it with would not be horror movies as such, but other fairy tale movies such as Jaromil Jires’ 1970 Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (which I reviewed here) and Neil Jordan’s 1984 masterpiece The Company of Wolves. The visual style is more reminiscent of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, with the same curiously flat and very stylised quality to it. You have no doubt, right from the start, that you’re in fairy tale territory (although it’s a kind of combination Lovecraftian and southern gothic fairy tale). The low budget and cheap make-up effects actually work in its favour – the monsters don’t look real, they look like movie monsters or pantomime monsters, in fact they look like the sorts of monster a naïve 13-year-old might imagine. Lemora herself (played with erotic menace by Lesley Gilb) is a wonderfully gothic concoction. Like The Night of the Hunter, this movie was misunderstood and ignored on release, and like Charles Laughton the director of Lemora was fated never to direct another film. Which is a tragedy. This is a very disturbing movie, and (despite the low budget) a visually stunning movie as well. Richard Blackburn achieves his atmosphere with simple but effective use of lighting and some terrific use of sound. Cheryl Smith (whose own life came to a tragic end at the age of 47) gives a marvellous performance as Lila. This really is a must-see movie. The Synapse DVD includes a commentary track by the director and the producer and the transfer is exceptionally good.