Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) aka Lemora is a tasteful movie which is, basically, about a lesbian vampire who preys on children – and one young girl in particular, who she hopes will join her as the undead to live together forever.
Don’t worry as sexual deviancy doesn’t come into it.
Lemora is a low-budget masterpiece by first time director and star Richard Blackburn (no info) which critic Leonard Maltin gives his lowest rating and describes as “perfectly awful”.
The story is one which would be difficult to tackle at any time but this film gives itself an otherworldly sense by setting the action in the 1930s.
But the key element which raises this film into cult status is the performance of 17-year-old Cheryl Smith (1955-2002 liver failure and hepatitis) who would go under the name of Rainbeaux Smith in many of her later movies.
Cheryl, as she liked to be called, plays a thirteen-year-old Christian girl in Lemora, who sings at the church before she goes on a journey into the countryside in search of her murderer gangster father… A letter from him, really bait from the vampire Lemora, has lured her away from her minister keeper.
Lemora is a tale of lost innocence and perhaps some sort of good and evil polemic about the belief of living forever, whether it be in a Christian afterlife or forever as an undead vampire.
Cheryl’s name in the movie is Lila Lee. Was she named after the silent film actress of the same name (1905-73 stroke) who started off as a seventeen-year-old starlet much like Cheryl?
In this movie, the title vampire is played by Lesley Gilb aka Lesley Taplin (1946-2009 car accident). Gilb is striking in make-up when she first appears which gives her the look of a slightly mouldering corpse… But as for Cheryl, she is a fresh blond and freckle-faced beauty, although she was already no innocent when the film was made… and it is reported that she didn’t take all of Blackburn’s direction throughout the movie which helps to make it a classic also. Instead, Cheryl played Lila Lee’s growing horror as she is enveloped into Lemora’s world with a certain passivity devoid of constant screaming which would have lessened the beauty of the piece and effectiveness of its star performance.
Cheryl Smith came from a single parent family. Her mother Jayne was a ballet teacher who had performed the Orpheum circuit during vaudeville. By the late 1960s, Cheryl was hanging around Sunset Strip clubs and was nicknamed Rainbeaux due to her constant presence among the musicians at the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset Boulevarde.
Director Blackburn, who would go on to co-write another cult item entitled Eating Raoul (1982) starring Paul Bartel (1938-2000 heart attack after liver cancer surgery) and Mary Woronov (1943-), couldn’t remember why Cheryl was cast in Lemora.
“I guess she came through some agent,” he said in an interview. “She had this dog. This huge Great Dane. She was basically a street waif.”
But she must have shown some talent and could transcend her current lifestyle as she sings, albeit dubbed, in the church at the beginning and looks just like an angel.
Later on, as she goes to catch a midnight bus, she is sexually menaced by the ticket seller who says: “A little girl as pretty as you… say you look like someone who likes chocolates. What do you like best then – soft or hard centres?” and he offers her the box, with a lurid look on his face.
Like some sort of blond and blue-eyed Alice in Wonderland, Cheryl or Lila Lee, has left the comforts of home with the slightly sexually repressed minister… He doesn’t knock when entering her room when she dresses and yet recoils from her innocent embraces.
Cheryl sees a prostitute in a window this night as her journey into the underworld begins, all with perfectly plaited hair and a white dress befitting the thirteen-year-old she is. The actress conveys the innocence perfectly but according to reports, she was already a regular drug user… This young actress, who had originally wanted to be an archaeologist and majored in the arts – drawing and painting and music and dance… was contracted to make the movie as long as she stayed at the home of director Blackburn’s parents to get her straight from all the chemicals she usually took as a part of her lifestyle.
She was, despite her experience, also physically well on the cusp of womanhood. It is a shame that Lemora failed upon its release and was treated so badly by the critics, as Cheryl’s could have been a breakout role. But, sadly, for Cheryl stardom would seem to be out of reach for the actress throughout her entire career. She had about a dozen leading roles in movies including a large one in Jonathan Demme’s (1944-2017 oesophageal cancer) slightly overrated Caged Heat (1974) which was Cheryl’s favourite movie with her favourite director.
Demme said of Cheryl: “I remember her as a good person and reliable to work with.”
He would give her a small role in his film Melvin and Howard (1980) when he hit the big time but this was at a time when Cheryl had begun to use heroin heavily which led to the end of her film appearances.
But back again to Lemora and Blackburn said: “It was obvious that she was high” especially during one scene, which was possibly when she was climbing on a rooftop, where she almost killed herself as a result.
In an interview toward the end of her life, Cheryl said she didn’t use drugs on the set of Lemora and in all honesty her performance reflects that.
By the time she reaches the house where the vampire Lemora first keeps her prisoner in a small stone prison, Cheryl’s hair is starting to look a bit ruffled as she talks to herself to stay sane. We meet Gilb’s Lemora and she is extremely tall with an angular face and staring eyes. Cheryl is taken to the main house to stay but drops a hand mirror when Lemora casts no reflection.
“You can see how lovely you are in my eyes,” says Lemora about the broken mirror.
I guess the reason we can accept the story of Lemora and the lesbian vampire is because it is a common one which has been handed down over the last few centuries going back to Countess Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614 in sleep under house arrest) who reportedly would bathe in the blood of virgins to keep herself young, perhaps indulging in a glass or two of the liquid. That’s the legend anyway!
We are disarmed further by the famous story Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73 heart attack) which was written in 1872. This novella is one of the early works of vampire fiction and precedes Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912 strokes) Dracula (1897) by 26 years.
Carmilla is narrated by a young woman preyed upon by a female vampire and basically sounds a lot like Lemora. Like the movie, the book never acknowledges homosexuality and instead we are left with intriguing subtlety.
Carmilla has since been adapted to film such as Universal’s sequel to the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (1931) entitled Dracula’s Daughter (1936). There’s a touch of female homo-eroticism in that one despite the film being made under the Production Code. French director Roger Vadim (1928-2000 cancer) explored Carmilla more thoroughly, as only the French could do at the time, with Et mourir de Plaisir (1960) aka And to die of Pleasure but it was butchered by censors for its American release.
Others will remember Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) which had Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010 heart failure) preying on Madeline Smith (1949-). Then there’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) which deals with Countess Bathory in the present day. More recently was the character Carmilla in Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009) and Carmilla (2019) directed by Emily Harris (no info) which has a fifteen-year-old girl developing feelings for a vampire. Let’s not forget Tony Scott’s (1944-2012 suicide by jumping off a bridge) masterpiece The Hunger (1983).
So Lemora remains a film which follows a well-worn formula devised long ago and because we know the actress playing the child is above the age of consent, at least in most countries, the film works and is not as controversial as its subject matter would indicate.
Lemora keeps several children who laugh creepily, using some sort of distorted sound effect, while they sit at the head vampire’s feet and drink goblets of blood. The house where Lemora lives is surrounded by wild creatures, or lower forms of life, which are half human and half animal. They stalk at night and nearly got Cheryl upon the night of her arrival.
As for the nude scene in Lemora, which could again be seen as controversial, Cheryl takes a bath at Lemora’s prompting. It is again, tasteful, and tries to cover the fact that the young actress was indeed seventeen.
“I didn’t want (too much nudity) to be there,” said the director: “and Cheryl at that time was pretty well endowed to what she was supposed to play.”
The actress had no qualms about the scene and it is natural, right down to Cheryl’s reaction to the horseplay of Lemora tickling her after she steps from the bath to dry herself. Cheryl, incidentally, went on to be a Playboy model and was Bill Bixby’s (1934-93 prostate cancer) The Magician model shortly afterwards in 1973.
Cheryl made one of her only real major A-grade movie appearances in the 1940s set detective film starring Robert Mitchum (1917-97 lung cancer) entitled Farewell, My lovely (1975). In a small scene, she is treated violently in a bedroom by a then unknown Sylvester Stallone. Many lesser roles called her name until the end of her career and she appeared in a bit part as a prostitute in Vice Squad (1982).
The biggest scream that Cheryl lets loose in the film, and it is all the more effective for being practically the only one, is when she sees Lemora through a window biting into the throat of a limp child. She has already come across the diary of a previous girl who has fallen into the clutches of Lemora and who we learn was killed as she was some sort of disappointment as Lemora’s chosen companion to be throughout the ages.
Poor Cheryl as an actress would suffer the taint of sexual idolatry after her Playboy appearance and most of her other appearances were in sexualised roles, such as her bit in Phantom of the Paradise (1974) as a groupie and appearances in naughty but nice movies such as The Pom Pom Girls (1976) and Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976). There’s a nude shower scene in Caged Heat, and she had drive-in and grindhouse success with the softcore porn Cinderella (1977). That same year, she travelled to Australia for the softcore Fantasm Comes Again (1977). Mainstream stardom eluded her as a result.
However, it is reported that she had a sizable role in Walter Hill’s (1942-) The Driver (1978) but it ended up on the cutting room floor. That year saw her last leading role and that was in the Charles Band (1951-) produced cult film Laserblast (1978) which was shot over three weekends on an almost non-existent budget. The film stars another tragic actor Kim Milford (1951-88) who died after heart problems and open-heart surgery.
Laserblast is described by Band as a “mini Star Wars” and in fact there is a scene where a Stars Wars poster is blasted to pieces by an alien weapon… perhaps in jealousy. It is said that Cheryl disliked the role because she felt the character was poorly written and she had too little rehearsal time. But any work would do and the film rates near the bottom of all the movies on IMDb. But as Frank N. Furter would say about things with a ‘certain naïve charm’, trash that Laserblast is, it has something. What is essentially a revenge movie, the film had a tagline on its poster that read: “Billy was a kid that got pushed around… Then he found the power.”
Cheryl and Milford may be too old to be termed kids, if they were meant to be teenagers, and the cartoonish poster portrays Milford as little more than a child… but David W. Allen’s (1944-99 cancer) stop-motion effects are okay and there’s low wattage old stars such as Keenan Wynn (1916-86 pancreatic cancer) and Roddy McDowell (1928-98 bowel or lung cancer). MST3K lampooned it mercilessly as you would expect.
So, with The Driver scenes cut and the ridicule of Laserblast, 1978 wasn’t a good year for Cheryl although she still looked good.
Cheryl gave birth to a son reportedly either in 1974 or 1976 named Justin and it was rumoured that the father was Eric Burdon (1941-) of the band The Animals. Obviously, music was one of Cheryl’s first loves and she joined the line-up of The Runaways as a drummer, replacing Sandy West (1959-2006 lung cancer) after the original line-up dissolved in 1979. She was apparently already using heroin and the rock and roll lifestyle probably contributed to her habit increasing… Cheryl can be seen in the film D-beat-e-o (1984) with Joan Jett (1958-) which was made using the remains of an abandoned film project entitled We’re All Crazy Now.
It was also around this time that Cheryl had her first run in with the law for heroin possession. It was something which would lead to her serving time on two separate occasions. It was while she was in jail that her talents as an artist came in handy as she reportedly designed tattoos for fellow inmates.
Jonathan Demme said of Cheryl’s attempts at stardom: “Rainbeaux had everything it took to be a star in a New World Picture production: youth, a great appearance and the ability to say lines of dialogue. Plus, she had talent and was an intriguing young woman.”
But with a heroin habit and a hepatitis infection as a result, the already poor money she was paid for some of the movies added to the very little money she made from others – in the end Cheryl would never be what you could term as ‘well off’.
The heroin abuse apparently grew as it became obvious that stardom had passed her by and there were rumours she spent time homeless on the streets near MacArthur Park. Towards the end, Cheryl was living with her mother and in one interview said: “…I’ve just had a lot of personal and medical problems that I’ve had to take care of. I never planned on being away from my career for as long as I have.”
These problems included a foot nearly being amputated…
“We didn’t get along that well,” she said about Lemora’s director Blackburn and in 1986 said: “Blackburn wanted me to cut my inch-long nails for the role and for me to shave my body… Didn’t even have a hair under the arm. He chased me one day, all over and around the set several times with scissors in his hand, trying to cut my hair. It was a riot.”
I’m glad that he didn’t succeed and that Cheryl took control of her performance in Lemora… the plaited hair suits the innocent look on her face. Lemora may, ultimately, be about a good Protestant girl having imagined the entire tale, in the end, as she stands about to sing in front of the church – the film cuts back to this in the final scenes – making it all slightly more acceptable to conservative viewers.
Thus, the ending of the film is the kernel of the girl that Cheryl once was and perhaps which she perhaps hoped she had stayed or at least would be remembered as her quest for stardom took her down the road to softcore porn in the career that ensued…
To look further back at the 1971 short film The Birth of Aphrodite by Leland Auslender, which was apparently a Palme d’Or Best Short Film Nominee at Cannes in 1972… It features a sixteen-year-old Cheryl in her film debut. In it we have an even younger Cheryl compared to her appearance in Lemora, as she emerges from the ocean naked and draped in seaweed.
This “sunset strip gal” as she was known was born, tastefully, within the drug-fuelled imagery of The Birth of Aphrodite as a goddess associated with love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation. Discarding the seaweed and standing naked, it was Cheryl’s baptism into filmmaking in a sense from which she would never really escape. Lemora is an aberration in that it is not sexually crass and is almost an art film instead of an exploitation horror.
Cheryl died aged 47 in 2002 from complications of liver disease and hepatitis.
Thanks for some information compiled by Bruce G. Hallenbeck.