Every horror fan has got their pet obscurities, those little “deep cuts” of genre cinema that only the faithful know and obsess over. Sometimes these films linger in the memory for nostalgic reasons but there are particular ones that inspire devotion because they manage achieve an impressive effect with meager resources. Lemora is one of those films, an American take on gothic horror that punches far above its weight class in artistic terms.
Lemora is a surreal blend of arthouse mysticism and gothic horror trappings. The adolescent protagonist is Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), an angelic-looking young girl whose gangster father murdered his adulterous mother and disappeared into the backwoods. She has been adopted by a fire-and-brimstone preacher (played by writer/director Richard Blackburn) who has made her the star singer in his church and keeps her under lock and key, brainwashing her with his joylessly strict take on Christianity.
Lila’s living purgatory takes a turn for the surreal when she receives a letter from a woman she doesn’t know – she refers to herself as Lilith, claim’s Lila’s father is on his death bed and that his dying wish is to see her. She also tells Lila she must come alone and tell no else. Lila slips off into the night, beginning a dreamlike, nocturnal odyssey that leads her to a decaying mansion owned by Lemora (Lesley Gilb). This woman not only holds the secrets to her father’s whereabouts but also seems determined to seduce the impressionable Lila into the outer limits of everything her church-driven life forbids.
Discussion of plot details will cease at this point: it is better to experience Lemora than to have it described to you. Blackburn has created a film that reaches for a combination of Mario Bava, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jean Cocteau and Night Of The Hunter on a poverty row budget with an amateur cast. The surprising thing is that he is mostly successful: he achieves a tremendously creepy atmosphere through darkly-hued cinematography by low budget vet Robert Caramico and gorgeous period decor, creating a mood that the horror-minded will automatically want to buy into because it’s so seductive.
Better yet, the film is anchored by its two stunning lead actresses. Smith, who would later become a grindhouse fave in films like Caged Heat and Massacre At Central High, is not only angelic-looking but delivers a wonderfully naturalistic performance that makes her believable and sympathetic throughout her strange journey. Her nemesis is just as impressive: Gilb’s deadpan theatricality takes a little while to get into but it turns out to be the perfect approach for a character who has seen more than most of us will ever see.
It should be noted at this point that Lemora is not for all tastes. It is paced in a very deliberate fashion and some of the support performances lean toward a community-theater style of exaggerated luridness. Both aspects might alienate viewers used to a slicker, more spoon-fed approach to filmmaking but this is not really for them anyway. It is designed for the mind that can appreciate the surreal, the gothic and how both of the aforementioned can be used to address the dark side of life. If you are willing to go for the ride, Lemora is one of those horror genre deep cuts that retains its sharpness.
DVD Notes: your best bet for Lemora on home video is the Synapse Films DVD. It has the best-looking transfer of this title to date, really capturing its primary color lighting scheme, and also includes a commentary track featuring Blackburn and Gilb.