Dir. Richard Blackburn
Set in 1920s rural America and filmed on an ultra-low budget, this deliciously weird and wonderful adult fairy tale tells of a young girl’s sexual awakening in the rustic abode of a female vampire. When 13-year-old church singer Lila (Cheryl Smith) receives a letter from the titular antagonist (Lesley Gilb) informing the girl her gangster father is close to death and longs to see her one last time, Lila runs away from her puritanical guardian, Reverend Mueller (Blackburn). On her journey she encounters various incarnations of aggressive male sexuality, from the sleazy ticket seller at the bus station and the lecherous man whose car she stows away in, to the coven of undead abominations lurking in the woods around Lemora’s home. Their advances serve to highlight Lila’s perceived vulnerability and objectify her burgeoning sexuality as she wanders somnambulantly through increasingly nightmarish landscapes. When she arrives at the home of Lemora, Lila initially resists the older woman’s attempts to initiate her into the sensual world of vampirism, but eventually embraces the power it wields and transforms into a Gothic seductress.
Lemora belongs to a group of films which unravel as darkly sexual coming of age parables, with fantastical narratives in which adolescent girls on the cusp of adulthood find themselves in menacing, arguably psychological landscapes pursued by monsters, both literal and figurative. Films such as The Company of Wolves, Valerie & Her Week of Wonders, The Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth, Paperhouse, Pan’s Labyrinth and Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty all explore and unfold within the dreams and fantasies of young women, who must use their resourcefulness, strength and virtue to overcome danger and emerge into adulthood, victorious and transformed. The narratives these girls wander through echo the initiations of folk and fairy tales in which the girl must outsmart the monster and obtain knowledge and experience. Lemora may not be as complex as the likes of The Company of Wolves but it certainly has moments that are almost as provocative. While the werewolves in Jordan and Carter’s film were metaphors for different aspects of sexuality - including adult sexuality in general, active female sexuality and aggressive male sexuality - the mindless forest vampires in Lemora merely speak of aggressive male sexuality and thrive on brutal instinct, completely without reason.
Despite the film’s remarkably low budget, Blackburn deftly creates a nightmarish landscape of forests, cellars and labyrinthine backstreets, rendering his filmic canvas in shadows and eerie blue lighting. As soon as Lila leaves the apparent safety of her home - and her religious guardian - to embark upon her journey to the town of Astoroth, she steps into a lurid and claustrophobic otherworld. From the creepy bus journey and the faded grandeur of Lemora’s plantation-style house, to an extended chase sequence that unfolds in the deserted town, Blackburn conjures a creepy atmosphere pregnant with oppressive foreboding. Lemora actually possesses a similar look and atmosphere to Tobe Hooper's EC Comics inspired Eaten Alive (1977), with its livid lighting and suffocating Southern steaminess.
There are a number of interesting allusions to the work of H.P. Lovecraft throughout Lemora, particularly The Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which the narrator is drawn to the decrepit and shunned town of Innsmouth. Due to years of mating with powerful sea creatures known as the Deep Ones, the locals all possess a peculiar appearance - bulging eyes, scabrous flesh, narrow heads - described as ‘the Innsmouth look’. The creepy ghost town Lila travels to – Astaroth – has a similar reputation to Innsmouth and she is warned about it by the bus driver. He explains that the townsfolk are horribly disfigured, have taken to prowling the surrounding forests and all have what he refers to as ‘the Astaroth look’. In demonology, Astaroth is the Duke of Hell and forms part of an unholy trinity with Lucifer and Beelzebub. Scholars believe the name is derived from several specific ancient goddesses including the Canaanite Ashtoreth (goddess of fertility, sexuality and war), the Phoenician Astarte (goddess of fertility, motherhood and war) and the Sumerian Inanna (goddess of love, fertility and war). These goddesses are connected to ideas concerning sex and death, a prominent theme throughout Lemora. Coincidence? Probably. But read on…
Lovecraft refers to the similar sounding Azathoth in several of his stories, including Dreams in the Witch House, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Haunter of the Dark and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He describes Azathoth as a ‘Nuclear Chaos’ and the ‘Daemon Sultan’. Interestingly, Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price suggests Lovecraft was not only inspired by the names of various demons and gods (Ashtoreth, Astaroth etc.) but by the name of an essential agent of transformation in alchemy: Azoth. Azoth is the name given to Mercury by ancient alchemists, and they believed it was the animating spirit contained in all matter and it made transmutation possible. This brings us back to Lemora and the themes of transformation - Lila’s gradual metamorphosis from child to a woman, and human to vampire. Not to mention the transformation and mental and physical degeneration of the residents of Astaroth. This is all of course complete conjecture on my part, but I thought it an interesting digression!
Lemora is a work of dark, dreamlike suggestion that draws upon fairy tales, vampire lore, Southern Gothic literature and the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It is an untypical vampire film with its own fascinating lore and hinted-at mythology. As a fantastical coming of age film, it perfectly captures, to quote from the Aurum Encyclopaedia of Horror, ‘the essential amorality and mysteriousness of the world of childhood’.
I would like to thank Wes over at Plutonium Shores for recommending I check out Lemora, a strange little film that warrants repeated viewing.