Friends and aspiring filmmakers Richard Blackburn and Robert Fern were UCLA film school graduates looking to make their mark on the filmmaking world. It was the early seventies and they figured that the best way to get into moviemaking was to make their own low-budget horror film. Vampires were big again, notably the lesbian-chic vampires of The Velvet Vampire and Daughters of Darkness (both 1971), and it seemed a natural. But Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) is no conventional vampire horror or sexploitation knock-off. “It fell between the cracks of art film and exploitation film,” observed Blackburn, looking back on the film in 2004.
Set in the Depression-era South, it opens like a rural gangster movie and detours into a drama of religious hypocrisy before becoming a sinister Alice in Wonderland. Cheryl Smith stars as the innocent Lila Lee, the young, virginal daughter of a vicious gangster and wife killer. Taken in by a tormented Baptist minister (director Richard Blackburn himself) who praises her innocence while fighting his desire for her, she runs away to the mysterious Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who promises to reunite her with her father. Young and trusting, fragile yet determined, this blond, freckled girl is the model of a guileless child on the verge of womanhood, Candide by way of Alice, but instead of a wonderland she wanders a corrupt world of wicked people and undead monsters.
Director Richard Blackburn and producer Robert Fern co-wrote the original screenplay together and produced the film on a tiny budget with a crew of friends, fellow film students, and a few professionals. They turn Pomona, California into a small southern town of the prohibition era with little more than carefully chosen locations, a few period cars, well-dressed sets and evocative costumes, and create an eerie, dislocated atmosphere deep in the woods, where ghouls prowl and prey upon anyone who wanders into the haunted forest. The make-up effects are often less convincing as the production stretched its resources to meet Blackburn’s ambitions. “I never told him that many of his concepts were beyond his budget,” recalls make-up artist Byrd Holland, “instead, the crew and I managed to give him what he wanted.”
Plays on Friday, December 14 on TCM