In the early 1930s, thirteen-year-old Lila receives a mysterious letter with information concerning her estranged gangster father. She leaves her slightly creepy foster parent, a minister, and makes a night journey to the mysterious town of Astaroth. Of course, if you visit a place called Astaroth in the middle of the night, you have to expect that things will take a dark turn.
Things take a very dark turn indeed.
This 1973 horror movie combines Lovecraft with the kind of traditional horror Lovecraft tried to supplant, most notably Dracula and Carmilla—or, rather, Carmilla via the then-recent Hammer adaptations. However, Lemora adds its own faerie-tale/dream layers that give it a distinct haunting mood. These elevate it above the poor production values and entirely derivative monsters, warring tribes of vampires.
The film features a compelling vampire queen (Lesley (Gilb) Taplin), and Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith does reasonably well as the imperiled adolescent. She would have a long career in B-movies and B-parts.1. The Old Crone manages to be very creepy. Especially memorable is her first scene opposite Lila, where she sings a rather disturbing child's song. Of course this film would have a disturbing child’s song.
The rest of the acting, alas, runs the gamut from mediocre to bad.
The limited budget shows a little too often. Effects and make-up, like a good deal of the acting, come straight out of a Haunted Halloween Hayride on Old Man Snyder's farm, just outside of Platsville. The filmmakers also saved on production costs by filming most of Lemora in darkness.
A decent horror story exists here, marred by jumpy editing. A confusing, flashback-ridden battle sequence leads to the film's uncertain ending. I understand that some things happen because of a larger plan, but I nevertheless wondered, when Lila was being chased by vampires, how she lost them so easily. Did they stop and ask for directions?
The final scenes work, but I could not describe adequately all the events that get us there. An original cut may have been better; scenes were cut and remain unrestored (they may no longer exist). What remains onscreen makes me wonder exactly what got cut, and why.
Lemora drips with uncomfortable sexual subtext, and not just because of the sexy titular vampire queen. Absolutely every character leers over, comments on the sexuality of, or directly hits on the 13-year-old protagonist. The actress was some years older when she made the movie, but that does little to mitigate matters.
That this movie eventually found an audience, despite being released in the shadows of The Exorcist, testifies to the compelling, creepy nature of its premise, several of its scenes, and its disturbing, ambiguous ending. If you enjoy unusual horror movies, you might want to check out Lemora. Just don't set your expectations too high-- and, of course, steer clear of midnight showings in small towns named "Astaroth."
Director: Richard Blackburn
Writers: Richard Blackburn, Robert Fern
Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith as Lila Lee
Lesley (Gilb) Taplin as Lemora
William Whitton as Alvin Lee
Hy Pyke as the Bus Driver
Maxine Ballantyne as the Old Crone
Steve Johnson as the Ticket Seller
Richard Blackburn as the Reverend
Many Extras as the Undead
1. Smith's film work includes several horror and exploitation films as well some mainstream movies (including a small role in Logan's Run). She also played very briefly with the Runaways during their final days, and posed for Penthouse. She made her last film appearance in 1983. Smith struggled with opioid addiction and ultimately died in 2002 from liver disease and hepatitis.