FANTASIA OBSCURA: Sometimes Real Life is Way More Frightening Than What’s Onscreen

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught.  Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare.  Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, however scary the final product is supposed to be, it’s not half as horrifying as the subtext…

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

(Dist.: Blackfern; Dir.: Richard Blackburn)

Some stars burn bright in a vast dark sky that only a lucky few get to look up at in time, and don’t “nova” when the end comes as a collapse into themselves. Such was the fate of Cheryl Lynn “Rainbeaux” Smith, an actress and musician whose promise was apparent while she was always on the verge, never getting the breaks she needed to make for a happier career or life.

Considering that her major debut in Lemora introduced us to her in a starring role and showed off both her acting and singing, it means that watching the movie now produces even more chills than it ever had during its brief limited run in the theaters and shotgun-like placement on local late night big-market TV starting in 1981 (though supposedly it had a cult following in France following its release). By the time the film was discovered by a wider American audience in the mid-1990s with its home video release, it was too late to help Smith.

For the uninitiated or unaware, the film itself still has enough agency on its own to keep the keenly interested watching.  Set in Prohibition-era Georgia, we open with a scene of a gangster (William Whitton) shooting his unfaithful wife in bed with another man before he drives away in the night. We get the details of what we’ve seen filled in by the Reverend (Richard Blackburn, who also directed and co-wrote the film), who is the ward of the gangster’s daughter Lily (Smith), the angelic song leader of the congregation.  The Reverend asks us not to lay on poor Lily the sins of her father and has to fight his temptations to not lay his own hands on her as she grows into a desirable woman.

Lily ultimately gets a letter from her Pa, asking her to come to him to ask for forgiveness, with a set of instructions to come a long distance away, alone. Innocent that she is, Lily makes her way into town by running away at night, finding the bus driver (Hy Pike, the film’s makeup artist) to take her out into the deep woods, where the bus is attacked by monsters.

Miraculously, she makes her way from them to the main house, where she meets the head of the estate, Lemora (Lesley Gilb Talpin).  Our heroine, a young lady with no worldly experience, is soon in the thrall of the mistress of the house (who the audience can tell on sight is the main agent of evil out to get her); Lily is flattered, coddled, and seduced in equal measure as Lemora leads her on, keeping from her prey that her Pa was only a guest at the estate for a while before the vampirism Lemora infected him with didn’t take well, turning him into one of the monsters that attacked the bus (shades of Innsmoluth here). Soon enough, Lily must decide if she is to resist what her hostess offers, while at the same time standing up to the threat from the creatures that surround the old house.

What the film lacks in terms of its limited budget and experience on set, as evidenced by the shop-worn makeup effects, the need for its first-time-out crew to fill major acting roles, and the promo budget being so small that the film could not have a trailer made back then to promote itself when it was first released, the film keeps you watching as you see the performance by Smith and her interplay with Gilb Talpin. Smith’s Lily drives the picture forward as we watch her innocent character coming to realize however slowly just how much danger she’s in and how ill-prepared she is to face it.  The way she plays off Gilb Talpin’s vampire, who was more Elizabeth Bathory than Dracula despite the alternate subtitle “the Lady Dracula” the film got in some releases, helps raise the picture in the viewer’s conscious from just another kid-running-around-in-the-dark movie that the 1970s crawled with.

On its own, however, the film cannot chill you the same way it does by watching it while knowing what happened to its lead. While most everyone else in the film either left entertainment for good or had successes in other endeavors outside of horror films (Pyke got a memorable role in Blade Runner, Blackburn would co-write the cult Eating Raoul with Paul Bartel, and Gilb Talpin would run Atherton Press and volunteer extensively with downtown Los Angeles cultural development organizations before her tragic death in an auto accident in 2009), Smith would start a pursuit of a stardom that always seemed just out of reach.

Her acting opportunities consisted of roles in such films as Caged Heat, The Swinging Cheerleaders, Phantom of the Paradise, The Incredible Melting Man, Laserblast, and supporting roles in the likes of The Choirboys and Cheech and Chong’s first two films, Up in Smoke and Nice Dreams. To put it mildly, the main talents she was better noted for in most of those had nothing to do with either her acting or singing; watching her in any of these after seeing what she was capable of the first time out is painful.

In terms of her music career, she had about as much success, though she managed to keep more of her dignity. Nicknamed “Rainbeaux” due to her constant presence among the musicians at the Rainbow Bar and Grill, she replaced Sandy West as drummer in the Runaways in 1979 when the original lineup dissolved. She performed (uncredited) with Joan Jett in an appearance for the abandoned film project We’re All Crazy Now, which would get used in the film Du-beat-e-o in 1984. (Smith was also briefly was in the combo LA Girls, which had a single track on Mystic Records’ compendium album The Sound of Hollywood Girls.)

However, the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle can be very unforgiving, and for Smith, it was a bitch. Soon after Du-beat-e-o was released, she had a series of run-ins with the law for heroin possession, serving time for two separate convictions. After release from the second one, she started treatment for complications tied to her addiction; she died in 2002 from liver disease and hepatitis, leaving behind a son she raised alone and so much unfulfilled potential.

Knowing that, watching the scene in Lemora where Lily finds herself in the bad part of town, before she runs into the bus driver and her vampiric hostess, becomes difficult to sit through. Smith does a fantastic job of portraying an innocent out of her depth as she is menaced by all the sleazy people leering at her, trying to exploit her at every chance they get.

Knowing that in real life, this poor girl is about to fall to temptation from a bad crowd ready to take everything they can from Smith, and that this just does not end well for her, gives the viewer an even deeper dread than anything Blackburn would shoot following that sequence.

NEXT TIME: A nightmare from a land down under. Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder? You better run, you better take cover…

About James Ryan 101 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…