Not everything old, classic or kitsch necessarily wears well simply by virtue of being such. Nevertheless, mellowed wine still leaves a richer taste, as is certainly the case with the rarely seen “Lemora, Lady Dracula” (1973), which will have its first theatrical screening in nearly 30 years in New York on June 29. Despite somewhat iffy visual and sound quality in its surviving form (based on a 1980 transfer to one-inch video of a less-than-pristine print), this cult chestnut is more intelligent, scary, humorous and effective than hyped recent genre efforts by Coppola, Jordan and Carpenter.
On an obvious level, this is a B-movie retelling of the classic theme of blonde, blue-eyed innocence (Cheryl Smith, later known as Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith) in Lila Lee, the “Singin’ Angel” who is “not old enough to know what it’s for”…who is confronted by the dark allure of evil, a la “Dracula” and “Carmilla” (whose play on female names is perhaps suggested in “Lemora”).
But the film’s greater depth is hinted at in the Stevenson-like subtitle, “A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural.” To the sexual, sometimes lesbian aspects of the vampire tale from “Christabel” onward, “Lemora” adds the turn of “seeing” the story from a 13-year-old’s viewpoint. Lemora offers not the brutality of the zombie-like forest creatures around her mansion, but love as she “really only shows people what they really are.”
Lila’s father is a 1930s gangster in the Deep South who, in the opening seconds, surprises in bed and kills the girl’s mother and her lover. Fleeing, he runs over an elderly lady and falls into the clutches of the vampire Lemora, who summons the church-singing daughter to her “ill” father’s side in the myth-resonant Asteroth. Numerous references to father/Father, plus intercut shots of the tormented Dimmesdale-esque Reverent/Father (played by director Richard Blackburn), hint at an abandoned girl’s search for parents, or paternal love, or a Heavenly father.
Is the whole thing a dream, the cages and enclosures only of the mind in split second between Lila’s choir solos before an all-female congregation? Is she indeed “Daughter of the Devil,” psychologically scarred by her parents’ lives and punished for the sins of her father and mother? Is this perhaps the sexual fantasy-made-real of a friendless pubescent girl; or is it all “true” and does evil triumph?
There is a purposeful ambiguity here, more effective than explicit, expensive special effects. We sense, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “something we are about to understand, but never quite do.”
And, for those who care enough to cherish the history of movies of all grades, a knowing, affectionate nod to the past: to Dreyer’s “Vampyr” and to werewolf and gangster films, to Judy Garland as Dorothy, Gloria Holden and Simone Simon, to Romero’s zombies, Mitchum’s L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E preacher, the Bates motel and house on the hill, and (in the hippie-costumed little children in Lemora’s care) to Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga and maybe Mick Jagger’s sinister Turner household in “Performance.”
This story-behind-the-story is itself with intriguing sidelights: billing under several different titles (including “The Lady Vampire” and “The Legendary Curse of Lemora”), the disappearance of the film’s theatrical prints and original negative, rumors of a ban by the Catholic Film Board and/or Legion of Decency, disparate listed running times ranging from 80 to 113 minutes, and the fact this was the only screen appearance of Lesley Gilb, excellent here as the title vampiress.
Oddly, the scratched and faded quality of the surviving video copy itself adds to the attractiveness of “Lemora, Lady Dracula” and its richly toned atmosphere. Outside sounds become weirder, and a few fleeting moments of fall foliage hues are overwhelmed by interior and night colors of a predominant pale blue and of a darker blue, red (lips and some background), muted orange, brown, dark Victorian purple. Except for choir robes and the Reverend’s shirt, all whites are bluish. There is no green, Dante’s color of hope.
It seems a loss that director Blackburn and producer Robert Fern (UCLA film school friends and a classmate of Jim Morrison) did not continue their work together and build further on the base that is “Lemora, Lady Dracula.” However, one must be glad that at least this fine original has been retrieved and released again. It, and its creators, deserve rescue and recognition.