Dementia 13 was one of the hundreds of genre films Roger Corman has independently produced. However, the legend’s biggest contribution to cinema likely isn’t his massive body of work, or the multiple cult classics (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Little Shop Of Horrors) he directed himself. In his tenure with both American International Pictures and New World Cinema, Corman had a keen eye for hungry talent, giving an all timer roster of actors and directors their first break. Cast and crew were free to do as they pleased creatively, as long as it met Corman’s content requirements and bargain basement price points.
In the case of 1963’s Dementia 13, that talent was a fresh out of film school Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola had been working as an assistant and a sound man for Corman, and knew that Corman often liked to produce features in pairs to cut costs. Seeing an opportunity, Coppola pitched a script centered around a set piece of a young woman making a late night swim to submerge toy dolls, and subsequently dying via axe murder.
Roger Corman offered Coppola the $22,000 left over from the budget of The Young Racers, and the use of the same below the line crew, European locations and key actors. In a fine display of exploitation hustle, Coppola pre sold the foreign rights to the finished product for another $20,000 to spend on his production. The interiors were shot in just 9 days, with some additional exterior work at both Ireland’s Howth Castle and less glamorous but dirt cheap Los Angeles locales.
Louise (Luana Anders) Haloran and her husband John (Peter Read) argue over money during a late night boat ride, Louise offended that John’s mother plans to bequeath her fortune to charity, rather than her children. The stress of the fight causes John to have a heart attack. The scheming Louise dumps his body into the lake, and heads to the Holoran family castle with a long winded story about John being away on business. The family is gathered for their annual memorial to John’s sister Kathleen, who drowned in that same lake as a young child.
Louise’s plans to integrate herself to the family (and Mrs. Haloran’s will) involve a spiritualist style long con to convince the group that Louise can communicate with Kathleen from beyond the grave. When her machinations are (quite literally) cut short, it is up to John’s brothers and the family doctor (genre stalwart Patrick Magee) to find the maniac in their midst before anyone else gets the axe.
It is inevitable when watching the early work of a prominent director, to look for the seeds of their future greatness, the signposts of incredible potential in an raw form. While all of this off kilter Gothic makes for a passable knock off of both Hitchcock’s Psycho and William Castle’s Homicidal, Coppola had not yet refined his screenwriting anywhere near the level of the complex epics he would later make.
The plot was written piecemeal, and it shows. Rising tensions are bogged down in a lot of overly dialog heavy exposition, characters are introduced without much narrative complexity to back them up, and what should be subtle red herrings are more neon signs of misdirection. Without Luana Anders’ archetypical scheming blonde, the back half of the film feels perfunctory, plodding along in a more procedural vein.
What pockets of brilliance lie in Dementia 13 are in the visuals. What it lacks in plot it makes up for in chilly mood and sheer jolts of style every single time the characters step outside the confines of the castle. The opening sequence makes an ordinary lake look like the inky black beginning of the river Styx, the music on the radio hopelessly tinny and swallowed by the dark. The lake swim set piece that sold the film to Corman is eerily murky, ending in a surprisingly gruesome (for the era) bloody murder. Desolation and isolation are hard to fake, and Coppola’s camera maximizes the atmosphere of both, helped along by a very solid Ronald Stein score.
This Vestron Video Series Blu-Ray Release is advertised as a director’s cut, but it isn’t exactly that, at least not in the traditional sense of added footage. Roger Corman wasn’t pleased with the final film, finding Dementia 13 both too short, and not salacious enough for drive in audiences. Corman had Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) shoot a 5 minute bit of intro ballyhoo called the D-13 test, where an obviously cue card reading “medical hypnotist” questions the audience regarding their psychological fitness to watch the film. He also tasked Jack Hill (Spider Baby) with shooting some second unit, adding a minor digression where a poacher pops up on the estate, only to get summarily decapitated.
Rather than adding additional footage, this edition banishes the D-13 test intro to the special features, and removes the Jack Hill inserts. This leaves this version shorter than its theatrical cut, clocking in at a mere 69 minutes. After years of languishing in smeary, public domain prints Dementia 13 looks as good as it is every likely to. The contrasts are much more crisp, the grayscale more defined, but not enhanced to the point of scrubbing out the film grain. Like many other films of this budget and vintage, the audio mix on the dialog wasn’t optimal, but is now better balanced and very serviceable for the source.
As for the special features, there’s the previously mentioned D-13 intro, and a short introduction to the film proper by Francis Ford Coppola himself. This package would have been helped along by trailers, radio spots or a gallery of posters and stills, given that this is the most definitive release Dementia 13 will likely ever get.
This is a minor nitpick, and all is largely forgiven as Francis Ford Coppola turns in an insanely charming commentary. You can feel him looking back on himself at 24 in ways that are simultaneously wry (his shyness hampered crush on Luana Anders), wistful (actors that looked old to a 24 year old man look impossibly young to an 82 year old) and self aware (he full admits his dialog heavy approach to exposition was clunky in retrospect, as one always has lots to learn as a filmmaker). It doesn’t reveal too terrible much about his technical process, but it works wonderfully as a portrait of an artist as a young man.
The Vestron Video series has done an excellent job of revisiting early genre focused works from notable directors, and Dementia 13 is no exception. The film is a bit too slight to be considered a classic of its own accord, but for fans of Francis Ford Coppola, or genre buffs looking for an interesting step in the lineage of slasher films will find much to be charmed by here. Everyone starts somewhere, and despite its flaws Dementia 13 manages moody atmospherics worth a sharper second look.
Wicked Rating: 7/10