Monday, June 5, 2017

DEMENTIA 13 (1963)


DEMENTIA 13 was the first mainstream directorial efforts by Francis Ford Coppola, but if one didn't know of his later fame, the film-- whose script Coppola also wrote-- would not signal any special promise.

To be sure, DEMENTIA began as producer Roger Corman seeking to tailgate on the success of Hitchcock's PSYCHO, and in following this dictum, Coppola was just delivering what the producer wanted. But even imitative directors have been known to produce worthy work, and DEMENTIA, despite some fine visuals, suffers from a weak script that doesn't even do that good a job of imitating its source.

Yes, just as PSYCHO starts out with a female POV character who dies early in the film,so does DEMENTIA. In terms of character Louise (Luana Anders) resembles Marion less than the many golddiggers (of both sexes) from the Hitchcock anthology series. She's married her husband John because she knows he has wealthy relatives in Ireland, and quarrels with him when she learns that his mother's will is set to devote all of the family wealth to charity, in the name of her deceased daughter Kathleen. John has a heart attack during the quarrel and Louise conceals his dead body, the better to travel to Ireland and try to get the will changed to Louise's benefit. How she thinks this will work without a living husband is anyone's guess.

Louise ingratiates herself into the castle of Lady Haloran and her two grown sons, all of whom participate in odd rituals devoted to the late Kathleen. Louise gets the idea of running a scam on the bereaved old woman, but while she's in the midst of laying her plans, an axe-wielding psycho kills Louise and conceals her body. The POV then largely shifts to the local doctor, an intense fellow named Caleb, who decides to solve the mystery of the missing daughter-in-law.

Because all of the characters are so thin, DEMENTIA fails to generate much suspense about who done it, and Corman even injected a little more killing when Coppola failed to provide it. It's interesting that Coppola's storytelling barely resembles the brisk efficiency of Hitchcock. If anything, his slow, meditative style bears more resemblance to DIABOLIQUE, the evocative 1955 that helped interest Hitchcock in attempting a horror film. However, early Coppola not only isn't even close to Hitchcock, he isn't even fit to polish the boots of Henri-George Clouzot.


  1. I saw Dementia 13 first run,--as an 11 year old!--and the audience at this "kiddie matinee" was screaming during the murder scenes, guessing the identity of the killer for much of the rest of the film.

    On a purely personal note: this was the first movie I (and probably many other kids) saw in which a girl was wearing either a bikini or underwear, by which I mean that her navel was showing. At the time SHOCKING! More so in some ways than the horror, for obviously very different reasons.

    On to the movie itself and your review, Gene: I think that it works somewhat better than you do because it's so visually compelling, and TV showings don't do full justice to it, as, needless to say, is true for films generally. However it's truer for some than for others.

    Horror, I think, suffers more, far more, than, say, comedy, and certainly far more than Noir, which seemed to have benefited most from TV showings. Noir just fits neatly into the television screen in a way that an ancient epic or big budgeted musical or western never could.

    Dementia 13's shock value is so reduced by its being on the small screen that the movie has to rely on its plot, which isn't too well developed, though I do think the elliptical storytelling rather works in the movie's favor, especially in the case of the William Campbell character, who just looks guilty because he had a somewhat diabolical handsomeness to him that's a perfect fit for the film.

    I like most of the performances, which get the job done. None of the actors messes up, no small accomplishment for such a small budgeted film. Patrick Magee's Dr. Caleb is a sly performance and nicely complements the slyness of Luana Anders. The ending is nicely done, though looking at it now it could have been more cathartic.

    Dementia 13 just goes to show how much B horror had changed since the days of Val Lewton. It's nothing like a Lewton. There's not even an attempt at gentility. It gets the job done, doesn't draw, as Lewton so often did, on the past,--I mean in the Jungian sense--as it's very much a modern story about modern people.

  2. I admire the visuals of DEMENTIA as well; I guess I just wanted the family to be a little individualized. Campbell's good, but there's not enough "red herrings" to make it dubious about who commits Luana's murder. It's interesting that you say people seeing the film pretty much guessed the killer right off, and that might be because Coppola just wasn't interested in the whodunit game. There's also something about Magee's doctor that makes him seem less like a detective than like a father confessor, and maybe that's where Coppola's real attention was focused. Stylistically, I can't think of anything else in his oeuvre that resembles DEMENTIA, so maybe Coppola was more interested in experimenting with style than in the story itself, particularly since Corman had dictated that it had to be a PSYCHO knock-off.

    Interesting comment on the lack of gentility, for that might be contribute to my impression that the Irish family just doesn't seem like a family of "landed gentry."