Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Creeper Convention:

Lemora-A Child's Tale of the Supernatural 


The 70's was a great time for poster art.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1975) is a film that I saw a week ago, and I'm still having flashbacks to it. Remembering Lemora isn’t hard; forgetting it will be a bitch.

Lemora is a film about the corruption of Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), a thirteen year old girl who tries to rescue her mob boss father from the clutches of Lemora, a vampiress, a witch and possibly a pedophile. Lila’s journey is punctuated with many potential pederasts, from her sweating minister foster father to the bus attendant who offers her cream filled chocolates to swarms of feral vampires who want to make her their queen. Scenes of Lila and Lemora are especially cringe worthy as the pale, unblinking, middle-aged vampiress encourages hair brushing and sponge baths.

Call child services immediately.

 A sharp-eyed friend made comparisons between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Alice in Wonderland (1951); the concept of a defenseless young female is also echoed in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The most frustrating thing about Lemora is that Lila is a completely passive character. She has none of Dorothy’s sense of fair play, Alice’s inherent curiosity or Ofelia’s precociousness. She just wanders from the clutches of one group of mean-and-nasties to another. At first, this makes you feel tense, but eventually it just makes the second act drag. In movies, if the heroes are active, we’re active. If they are wandering aimlessly in the spooky woods, we’re looking at our watch.

This is the part where she meets the Cheshire cat. 

Lemora is built less like a film and more like a haunted house: The back story is an excuse for atmosphere. As a haunted house, it succeeds. In one room, Lila is circled by a milky-eyed old woman who sings in nursery rhyme. In another, Lila sips a red, non-wine liquid as Lemora holds court with a half-dozen of her vampire Gypsy children. Lila stumbles through misshapen sets that echo The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Like Carnival of Souls (1962) or Eraserhead (1977), Lemora is a series of macabre images strung together by a modicum of plot.

This is where the film shines.  This shot looks like it was painted in oils.

What plot there is echoes Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a Gothic novella published in 1872. Written 25 years prior to Dracula, it describes a vampiress’s seduction of a young girl.

Lemora on the left, Carmilla on the right.

Lemora keeps the seduction, but drops Lila’s age to worrisome levels. Not that Lila looks like a teenager; she’s played by an actress in her early twenties. So many problems could have been solved by aging Lila up while still keeping the concept of loss of innocence.  Lemora made its choice though, even going so far to remind you by placing “child” in the title. In the end, you just want to stand up and say “This is weird! You’re a vampire. He’s a werewolf. She’s 13. And there are all these creepy Gypsy children everywhere! You’re a witch now? That wasn’t clear. Now it’s over? What?”

If you're confused, tough.

The real tragedy isn’t Lemora’s descent, but that such strong visuals are tied to a gobbler of a script. It’s a great film for Halloween parties; just be sure to put it on mute.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Give Me Back My Shoes: 

The Teratology of The Bad Seed

Do NOT reveal the ending.

Psychopaths thrive in our culture by exhibiting boldness, confidence and total self-interest. Success makes psychopaths sexy, and that means we want to see them in film and television shows, doing all the wonderful horrible things that common decency stops us from doing (see Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan for details). But even psychopaths were children once, and the question of what to do with evil children is a bit of anxiety-gristle upon which pop culture likes to chew, as shown by The Omen (1976), Children of the Corn (1984), The Children (2008) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). But the queen of these pint-sized monsters is Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack), child star of The Bad Seed (1956), a film about a pigtailed suburban girl with a secret.

Revelations 13.1: And I stood upon the sea, and saw a beast rise
up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns and pigtails

Rhoda is an adult in a child’s body: She curtsies, she prefers talking with her mother’s friends than to other school children, she is downright elegant. Most important, she’s cold. As a man burns to death on her home’s front lawn, his screams are intercut with Rhoda practicing piano. Christine, Rhoda’s mother, is played with great fervor by Nancy Kelly.  At one point Christine tearfully informs her daughter that a little boy in Rhoda’s school drowned on a class trip; the girl replies “Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?”

This mashup, this sweetness-covering-horror-badly is the essence of The Bad Seed. The film is set in the '50s, an era when the only way to defeat the Russians was to clench one’s butt checks tighter than a hipster’s jeans. There are cracks in Rhoda’s Leave It to Beaver lifestyle. Christine’s friends are writers and psychoanalysts that discuss criminal cases and Freud like the weather. Everyone drinks—the mother of the little drowned boy, Mrs. Daigle, confronts Rhoda by spilling whiskey and pawing at her. Mrs. Daigle (Eileen Heckart) is a character that smears the veneer off of polite society, which is interesting considering she’s a beautician by trade.  It’s her business to mask people’s ugliness.

No, here's to you, Mrs. Daigle.

The concept of masking is shown visually too: A reoccurring sequence in Seed is a long shot with one character in the foreground with their back to a character in the background. The background character speaks plainly, while the foreground character frets and fidgets in a way that only the audience can see.

No, look at her from this side, dum-dums. She's not at all well.

A reoccurring focal point in shots is a framed silhouette of a mother lifting up her daughter. 

I was forced to stop a drinking game made from spotting these after I passed  out.

But why is she holding her? She could be strangling her, or holding her away in disgust. At one point, after hearing about the boy’s death, Rhoda’s grandfather stares at Rhoda too long after embracing her. 

“Why do you look are me?” Rhoda asks. 

A tender moment.

“I--just want to see your face,” the elderly man stammers out and puts her down as if she were a pet cat that just ate a robin’s babies.  

Silhouettes dot almost every frame in the film, and when Rhoda throws a pair of incriminating shoes into the incinerator, she’s shot in low light that turns her into a shadow.

Incinerators were outlawed in 1959 when it was discovered
that they were principally used to destroy evidence.

To modern audiences, The Bad Seed is a B-movie that was built for parody.  It has a small cast, uses few locations and its actors feast on the scenery. However, The Bad Seed was always meant to be played straight. The use of set, the melodramatic acting and the blocking are all remnants from when The Bad Seed existed as a play; much of the cast were from the stage production, and there’s even a curtain call at the ending credits. Rhoda has fullness to her voice and precision that could only come from dozens of live shows--Christine gives a performance meant for the people in the nosebleeds.  The Bad Seed survives as a unique classic because it could never be recreated; the tools and environment that made it live are gone.  Today, film and live theatre exist in two separate worlds with the latter being a niche market (honestly, when was the last time you saw a play?).  As a marriage of the two, The Bad Seed is a bastard child from another era; they don’t make them like this anymore because they can’t.