Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Is fun evil?"

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

(cross-posted from my side project at Haunted Vinyl)

Never has a movie gotten so much publicity from being banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. For years, horror movie magazines advertised VHS copies of this movie by trumpeting that fact, as if its makers had been persecuted by a Vatican conspiracy, and that's why no one had ever heard of it. Or, come to think of it, like being disapproved of by the church is particularly difficult. Most of the movies in my collection, pre-Bollywood, probably fall into that category. Interestingly, one can now check the lists, and I don't find any verifiable evidence that the Catholic Legion of Decency ever even heard of the film. (The archived reviews and ratings are available on line here). Still, the factoid still turns up on the Wikipedia. And I'm more than happy to be proved wrong, if someone has a citation for me.

Lemora has got a Poe-like title, a Lovecraftianly-named town (Astaroth), and one of the best never-released movie soundtracks ever. That bluegrass banjo "Paper Angel" song, by a group called the Black Whole -- and doesn't that sound like a '60s coffeeshop? -- would be worth the price of a CD all by itself. Then there's the creepy old-lady singing, and all the spookily sincere church music.

Cheryl (Rainbeaux) Smith stars as Lila Lee, a church-going young "Singin' Angel" who's constantly fending off unwanted advances, and whose loss of innocence is symbolized by a weird occult tale of vampires and feral werewolf ghoul creatures. She takes a dream-like bus trip to visit her dying gangster father, during which the bus is attacked by what appear to be deformed children. Then she's locked up by the stony-faced Lemora (Leslie Gilb, an otherwise unknown actress with a definite Sigourney Weaver quality), who tries to woo Lila into joining her in a vaguely depicted vampiric existence. She tempts her with wine and dance, asking that most important theological question, "Is fun evil?" Maybe, sometimes, and evil is sometimes fun, as it in her performance.

On the side, Lemora kills whatever of the "diseased" feral creatures she can catch as they roam in the countryside around her house. The cause of all this supernatural mayhem is unfortunately unclear, but my theory is that Lemora's very presence in this isolated small town is causing it, given her line of dialogue: "I don’t do anything. I only show people who they really are."

That throws a Swedenborgian cast on the story: the idea that angels and demons (no, not a Dan Brown reference!) are the inner selves of people made visible. My Swedenborg anthology isn't handy, and all the online resources are unfortunately too long-winded, so you'll have to take my word for it. Just this once.

Unfortunately, the story falls apart, as so many do. It develops into escapes and chases and slo-mo battles between the different supernatural parties, which would probably be more effective if we knew who they were and what it all meant. So at that point it starts to drag, and the conclusion lacks the punch it should have. Nonetheless, thanks to all the publicity, and the stylistic air of low-rent surrealism, it's one of the must-see cult horror films.

Rainbeaux, of course, went on to star in movies like The Swinging Cheerleaders and The Pom Pom Girls, where she specialized in slutty-but-sweet (not a value judgment: the whole point of these movies was overt sluttiness. It was, after all, the seventies). This was a very unusual role for her, and while her characterization is definitely on the blank-faced side, that's the role. Actually, it makes her look sort of stunned and unbelieving by events, which is perfectly reasonable. She also screams with real conviction. Sadly, Smith died at 47, and her son touchingly visits the IMDB occasionally to thank people for remembering her.

Since I can't find them anywhere else on the Internet, here are the lyrics to "Paper Angel." I can't be positive about a few words, since they're drowned out by the stagy tableau of Sin in the Big City that it plays behind (the sounds of bar brawls, a guy shouting "I'll teach you to fool around with my friends!" and so on). But I'm relatively confident.

She was holy and divine, and I wished that girl was mine
Her eyes they were the bluest of them all
But on that dark black day when she laughed and walked away
I knew she was a-headin' for a fall

She had lovely golden hair that would perfume up the air
I told that girl that one day we'd be wed
But she only laughed at me, I wasn't good enough, you see
And that is what this paper angel said

Well I saw her late last night, Oh God, she was a sight
All painted up and powdered like a whore
And I knew that wife of mine is the one that's so divine
And there ain't no paper angel anymore

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