Saturday, January 24, 2009

#53: Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (Richard Blackburn, 1973)

Wow. Lemora is something else. I'm going to attempt to express my enthusiasm for this film without giving much away, since some of the pleasure of this under-appreciated low-budget horror film is going into it with little knowledge and not much expectation. It really is unlike anything I've ever seen, though director, co-writer, and supporting actor Richard Blackburn's cinematic and literary influences may tell you something about the tone and form: Luis Bunuel, Val Lewton (producer of 1940s horror classics including Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie), Curtis Harrington (director of experimental films, drive-in horror movies, and schlock TV like Dynasty), Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Fritz Lang's Moonfleet, Victor Halperin's White Zombie, H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth," Arthur Machen's "The White People," Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland novels, James M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Additionally, parts of the film have been compared to Night of the Living Dead.
Blackburn and most of his cast and crew were amateurs, and the film is decidedly amateurish. The acting is a little rough and inconsistent at times, the camera setups are occasionally clumsy, and the special effects and makeup are a little on the high school theater side of things. These faults are forgivable, understandable, and lovable, and they actually reinforce the film's strengths by supporting the off-kilter, extended dream atmosphere. What Blackburn's film does right, it does really right. The tone is consistently eerie and nightmarish without any distracting subplots or comic relief (though it is darkly funny in parts), the editing and pacing are sharp and skillful, the actors' faces and movements are cinematic, and many of the images are beautiful, spooky, and unforgettable.

I will give away only the barest of storyline because I want everyone to see this unfairly neglected movie. Set in the Prohibition-era late 1920s or early 1930s in the rural South, Lemora follows a young devout Baptist 13-year-old girl (cult movie legend Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith), the daughter of a notorious gangster on the run, who has been adopted by the reverend and draws a huge crowd at Sunday services (oddly, only women) because of her angelic singing. She sneaks away one night to find her father and forgive him. The perilous journey involves things in the woods and even more menace at the home of Lemora. I'll leave it at that.
Fanboy verdict: This movie is awesome. Seriously awesome.

Some interesting info about the director and his star:
Richard Blackburn had a very short but interesting career in film and TV. Making Lemora with zero experience, but expecting to make a profit because of the popularity of the genre, Blackburn and his producer/co-writer Robert Fern (who unwisely bet his friend that Lemora would make more money than The Godfather) instead almost went bankrupt. The movie tanked in theaters, and Blackburn never directed another film. He did, however, go on to co-write Eating Raoul with Paul Bartel, write and direct an episode of Tales from the Darkside, and act in the sci-fi drama Threshold. Beyond his limited filmography, Blackburn worked as a book editor, writer for the L.A. Weekly and the Village Voice, and compiler of reissues and compilations for Rhino Records.

Star Cheryl Smith, later known as Rainbeaux Smith, worked steadily in the 1970s, and nearly every movie she acted in has become a cult classic. Despite being voluptuous enough to appear in Playboy and sexploitation movies, she convincingly played an innocent 13-year-old girl in Lemora. She had one of the most interesting, expressive faces in film. Her resume includes Evil Knievel; Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat and Melvin and Howard; my favorite cheerleadersploitation movie, Jack Hill's Swinging Cheerleaders; Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise; the Robert Mitchum and Harry Dean Stanton-starring Raymond Chandler adaptation Farewell, My Lovely; schlock "classics" The Incredible Melting Man and Laserblast; and the Cheech & Chong movies Up in Smoke and Nice Dreams. She was also a member of the famous rock group The Runaways, before they were famous. Unfortunately, a heroin habit she picked up in the late 1970s killed her acting career in the early 1980s, and she spent time homeless and in prison. She died of hepatitis, contracted from a dirty needle, in 2002 at the age of 47.
See Lemora.

Monday, January 12, 2009

#52: The Legend of Hell House (John Hough, 1973)

What can I say about The Legend of Hell House? It doesn't lend itself to long pontifications or Mystery Science-style mockery (for the most part). It's simply a well-made, enjoyable British haunted house movie with all the right cliches and none of the wrong ones. The only real break with genre convention is when we find out why the house is haunted. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but it's a pretty ridiculous reason. However, in the context of the pettiness and weakness of human nature, if houses could really be haunted in the really real reality of real life, houses would be haunted for stupid and petty reasons like our little ghost buddy's in this film.

The story begins with an eccentric millionaire's recent acquisition of the Belasco house, "the Mount Everest of haunted houses." This house isn't just haunted. It's haunted the fuck up TNT extreme. A houseful of decadent, debauched visitors, excepting the mysteriously absent Mr. Belasco, were found dead there many moons ago, and the place has been haunted ever since. Twenty years prior to our story's beginning, a team of paranormal investigators entered the house. Only one survived. Our eccentric millionaire wants to get to the bottom of the hauntings once and for all, so he assembles a trio of experts: a scientist (Clive Revill), a mental medium (Pamela Franklin), and a physical medium (Roddy McDowall). The latter just so happens to be the sole survivor from the previous ill-fated expedition. This trio has been given a week to figure out why the house is haunted and un-haunt it, for a massive sum of money. Revill unwisely brings his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt). Will the scientist and the psychics squabble about who's right, or will they get along and unghost the ghost house?

Ending aside, The Legend of Hell House doesn't bring anything new to the haunted house genre, but, like I said earlier, there are good cliches and bad ones. Bad cliches are perpetuated by cynics and idiots to get your money. Good cliches are like folk tales passed on from generation to generation. This movie has the feel of a couple of friends telling each other a ghost story around a fireplace. Director John Hough, who also made the Peter Fonda car-chase movie Dirty Marry Crazy Larry, provides reliable thrills and a spooky atmosphere. We get fog, an awesome house with lots of chandeliers and stairs and a boarded-up chapel, poltergeist phenomena, possession, crazy killer black cats, loud ghost voices, whispery ghost voices, sleepwalking, giant crosses, Franklin allowing a ghost to get his bone on, and isolated claustrophobic drinking of hard liquor and perusal of Belasco's erotic library. Oh yeah, and convulsions.

The actors mostly underplay, except for some mighty freakouts in the denouement, and they all have interesting faces and know how to move through a frame. McDowall's character is particularly interesting. He's a fragile little man with huge glasses that always seem to be reflecting the light and ultra-magnifying his eyes. He has little interest in ridding the house of ghosts, and his plan is just to keep quiet, lay low, collect his money in a week, and get thousands of miles the hell away from the place. McDowall plays the guy as an almost ghostly presence, who occasionally makes a sarcastic or elliptical comment but mostly looks frightened and still. Until the end when he goes apeshit mcnuts, acting-wise!
I liked this movie quite a bit. It's not The Haunting (1963), but, much like a sandwich made from leftover meatloaf, it's solid comfort food.