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May’s Southern Movie of the Month

The 1970s were an awesome era for bizarre, low-budget horror movies, and the strange “Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural” from 1973 is a part of that tradition. This one has it all: bad acting, a storyline that makes little sense, cheap sound effects, methodically slow walking, too many camera close-ups. Supposedly set in 1930s Georgia, the only things Southern about “Lemora” are the forced accents and the evangelist-preacher male lead. TCM Underground’s webpage on “Lemora” describes the film this way:

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.

That’s pretty generous.

The film opens in black, and at first all we hear are two voices, one male and one female, discussing how the woman’s husband is out of town on business. Just then the lights come on, and a gangster in a fedora and pin-striped suit opens fire on two middle-aged lovers, splattering red-paint blood on the bed and wall. As the killer-husband rushes from the scene in his black sedan, he also runs over an old woman who, for some reason, is standing in the middle of the road at night and does nothing to get out of the way.

After a slow-paced escape through the California hills— uh, I mean through the Georgia pines, the gangster pulls up to an abandoned-looking house where a woman in a black hooded cowl is standing in front of the door. As the gangster gets out of the car, presumably to deal with this wiccan-seeming person, two pale goons in all black jump him, pin him to the hood of the car, and hand something to the woman. Is this a pagan shakedown? No, it’s not his wallet, just a newspaper clipping.

The scene shifts quickly and we meet the “singing angel,” Lila, whose soprano solo leads into a sermon on “good and evil” by a preacher wearing – no lie – a white suit and black string tie, a la Colonel Sanders. (The preacher is played by the film’s director, Richard Blackburn.) His sermon to the all-female congregation gives some exposition on what exactly that gangster business had to do with a blonde teenager singing in church: the local newspaper has revealed that the cold-blooded killer is the father of the pretty songbird, who was taken to be raised by the church three years ago. And though just last night her father killed her mother, the gossipy church ladies in the front row need to be reminded that this sweet, innocent girl has done nothing – absolutely nothing – wrong.

Later that evening, as the preacher and young Lila sit at dinner, discussing their faith, she oversteps her bounds, gets excited, and gives her guardian a neck-hug. There’s an Oh no you didn’t! and he sends her to her room. After his defensive sermon about the girl’s perfection and his awkwardly angry response to an embrace, we have to wonder: is there sexual tension between these two?

Soon, Lila gets a letter from someone named Lemora (who is the woman in the cowl). The letter tells Lila that her father is sick and needs her; she must come very soon and come alone. Lila sneaks out of the house that night, stowing herself away in the back seat of a car, where she listens to two lovers laugh and jibe at her innocence and at her situation. When they stop to neck in the middle of a dirt road, Lila bolts and runs into town, witnesses its lascivious cruelty, and goes to catch the bus that the letter told her to take. This town is so rough that the creepy late-night ticket seller even has the audacity to offer her chocolate as he is telling her that the bus she asked for doesn’t exist.

But out in the alley, there sits her bus, just as Lemora’s letter said it would be. The driver, a googly-eyed wretch played by Hy Pyke, narrates the dangers of their route as he weaves along the bumpy roads. The people out there in the stinking salt marshes have had some disease that turned them into . . . something awful. Soon, the bus is chased by a pack of the humanoid creatures who growl like dogs, and the driver explains that those are the really bad ones that have gone completely wild. (The creatures look like Frederick Douglass with leprosy.) The driver and passenger get away that time, but of course the bus breaks down, and the driver is attacked and overtaken by the beastly things. Lila jumps in the driver’s seat and coasts through a few bends in the road, but hits a tree— and here come the things! Right as we’re sure that Lila’s jig is up, the goons in black from the beginning of the movie appear to fend off the monsters!

Lila then finds herself alone, locked in a stone outbuilding. She is awakened a cackling, toothless old woman who brings a plate of food and scares her with a nursery rhyme. A day or more passes, and Lila goes a little stir crazy, her only interaction being with a small group of children who come to giggle at her through a barred window. However, the sweet Lila shifts gears into a necessary worldliness. When the old woman returns, the girl pushes her down and escapes! But she doesn’t get far, only into the crawl space of the big house nearby. And that’s when she overhears Lemora sucking her father’s blood.

When Lila comes out from under the house, Lemora is there waiting on her. At this point in the movie, any normal viewer is thinking, Why am I watching this? But walking away isn’t that easy. (As with all bad movies, there’s this hope that something cool might happen . . . if you just give it a little more time.) Lemora brings Lila into the house and has her change clothes, alluding to “a ceremony” that will happen later. For a naive young goodie-goodie, Lila reacts with unusual coolness to her bizarre surroundings, even when offered “spirits,” i.e. blood, in an awkward little gathering in the parlor with those giggling children. With grinding slowness, Lemora ushers Lila around the house, accomplishing little to nothing in each new scene.

However, Lila does encounter her father, the man she came to forgive and hopefully save, but he has become like one of the beastly things in the woods, and he scratches her up a little bit, before Lemora burns him with a torch, causing him to run off.

As Lemora prepares to make Lila her new . . . what do I call it? . . . girlfriend, lover, co-vampire person, Lila escapes out the front door, urged forward by a barrage of whispers coming from the portraits on the walls. Once she is out of Lemora’s house, Lila is unprotected and being chased by the pasty vampire goons in their Amish puritan garb and by the growling, misshapen victims of that unnamed diseased. After running through and climbing around what looks like the ruins of an old factory, Lila is cornered by Lemora, who speaks her spooky diatribe about destiny and everlasting life.

At the ceremony, the Amish vampire goons and the ugly beasties lock up, fighting to the death, as Lila hides under the stage. Just as Lila thinks she can escape, one of the beasties has survived— and it is her father! As he tries to reach for her, she kills him with a wooden stake, only to realize too late that he was trying to to embrace her. So sad . . .

After all that, Lemora finally bites Lila’s neck, and she does becomes a vampire. While all of that fussing and chasing and fighting was going on, the overzealous preacher had been riding around in his car, looking for his sweet Lila. Self-righteous loser that he is, not only does he not save the day, he is discovered, sleeping, by Lila. He is so happy and relieved to see her. The two embrace and kiss passionately, right before the now-evil Lila bites his neck! The joke is on you, young Colonel Sanders.

“Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural” fails on lots of levels. From its total-misses on Southern culture to its pitiful male lead, the flaws are striking. (This is one of those movies that’s so bad, it’s got a cult following.) As any kind of indication of what the early twentieth-century South might have been like— no. Just no. But I don’t think that the makers of “Lemora” were really going for that. The TCM Underground site explains:

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.

It was more about the horror-movie stuff.

What might be more interesting than the film’s questionable link to the South or its now-revered awfulness is the fact that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ film board, once called the Legion of Decency, condemned the film. I hate to think that a group of Church leaders had nothing better to do in the mid-1970s than criticize a low-budget horror movie like this one. The world has bigger problems. As a Southerner, I’d tell anyone: Don’t get your ideas about the South from this movie. As a Catholic, I’d tell anyone: Don’t get your ideas about religion from this movie.

Clear enough? Good.