Down the Rabbit Hole
Not everything old, classic or kitsch necessarily wears well simply by virtue of being such. Nevertheless, mellowed wine still leaves a richer taste than newer vinegary lemons, as is certainly the case with the rare, re-released Lemora, Lady Dracula (1973), once also billed as The Lady Dracula and The Legendary Curse of Lemora. Despite somewhat iffy visual and sound quality in its surviving form, a single one-inch video copy of 1980, this cult chestnut is more intelligent, scary, humorous and effective than hyped recent genre efforts by, say, Coppola, Jordan and Carpenter.
Aside from the three titles, there are several intriguing sidelights—the disappearance of theatrical prints as well as the original negative; disagreements during the 28-day/$200,000 shooting schedule; rumors of a non-existent ban by the Catholic Film Board and/or Legion of Decency; disparate listed running times of 80, 83 and 113 minutes; confusion of the setting with actual shooting locale; questions of ownership; the fact that this was the only screen appearance of Lesley Gilb, excellent here as the title vampiress.
On an obvious level, this is a B-movie retelling of the classic theme of blonde blue-eyed innocence (Cheryl [later Rainbeaux] Smith), Lila Lee "the Singin’ Angel ‘not old enough to know what it’s for,’" confronted by the dark allure of evil, à la Dracula and Carmilla (whose play on female names is perhaps suggested in "Lemora").
But the film’s greater depth is hinted at in a Stevenson-like subtitle, A Child’sTale of the Supernatural. To the sexual, sometimes lesbian, aspects of the vampire tale from "Christabel" onward, Lemora adds the turn of "seeing" the story from a thirteen-year-old’s viewpoint (although, apart from appearing much shorter than Gilb, freckled Smith looks several years older than her rôle). Lemora offers, not the brutality of the zombie-like forest creatures, but love, as she "really only show[s] people what they really are."
Lila’s father is a 1940s gangster who in the opening seconds surprises in bed and kills the girl’s mother and her lover. Fleeing, he runs over an elderly lady and falls into the clutches of the vampire Lemora, who summons the church-singing daughter to her "ill" father’s side in myth-resonant Asteroth. Numerous references to father/Father, plus intercut shots of the tormented Dimmesdalesque Reverend/Father (played by director Richard Blackburn), hint at an abandoned girl’s search for parents, or paternal love, or a Heavenly Father.
Is the whole a dream, the cages and enclosures only of the mind in a split second between Lila’s choir solos before an all-female congregation? Is she indeed a "Daughter of the Devil," psychologically scarred by her parents’ lives and punished for the sins of the fathers? Is this perhaps the sexual fantasy-made-real of a friendless pubescent girl; or is it all "true," and does evil triumph?
There is purposeful ambiguity here, more effective than explicit, expensive special effects. We sense, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "something we are about to understand, but never quite do."
And, for those who care enough to cherish the history of movies of all grades, a knowing, affectionate nod to the past: to Dreyer’s Vampyr, to werewolf and gangster films, Judy Garland as Dorothy, Gloria Holden and Simone Simon, Romero’s zombies, Mitchum’s L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E Preacher, the Bateses’ house, and, in the hippy-costumed little children, to Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga and maybe Mick Jaggers’ sinister Turner household.
Oddly, the scratched, probably faded quality of the video print itself adds to the attractiveness of Lemora and its richly toned atmosphere. Outside sounds become weirder, and a few fleeting moments of fall foliage hues are overwhelmed by interior and night colors of a predominant pale blue and of darker blue, red (lips and some background), muted orange, brown, dark Victorian purple. Except for choir robes and the Reverend’s shirt, all whites are bluish, and there is no green, Dante’s color of hope.
It seems a loss that UCLA film school friends Blackburn and producer Robert Fern did not continue their work together and build further on the base that is Lemora. However, one must be glad that at least this fine original has been retrieved and released again. It, and its creators, is certainly deserving of rescue and recognition.
(Available from Moore Video; no MPAA rating available.)