Dementia 13 (USA/Ireland 1963)

Public domain titles from the golden age of schlock, like Dementia 13, tend to live an unloved life in the bargain bins of any self-respecting dvd store. Price will vary from fifty cents up to maybe five bucks if the merchant is feeling lucky. Why this has such a I’m cheap buy me status is baffling to a lover of old schlock like me. This film owes much of its terror from its setting, its imagery and surreal circumstances that have a hint of something otherworldly.

Francis Ford Coppola made his legitimate commercial feature debut by writing and directing this moodily Gothic horror mystery thriller under the sage aegis of irrefutable legendary exploitation movie ace, Roger Corman. And Dementia 13 is far superior to his mega budget overblown mess “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” thirty years later. Also in common with the majority of Corman productions, Dementia 13 steals major plot devices from a recent hit movie, in this case taking the atypical structuring of Psycho, which had become something of a B-horror bible since its release in 1960. As for Coppola the director, he shows an aptitude and subtlety rare in one so inexperienced. As he often would later in his career, he displays a penchant for distant high-angle shots, or shots with the camera amongst the bric-a-brac of the set.

In the context, this adds to the disturbing atmosphere, as if the house or the trees have eyes. He also throws in some good eerie touches, like the doll hanging on a string when Luana Anders searches among the children’s toys. By and large though it’s fairly clear he’s in dramatic mode, encouraging steady measured performances from his cast in the dialogue scenes and filming reaction shots in the group scenes to keep everyone’s story arc going. Speaking of the cast, the acting is often one of the weakest links in a picture such as this. However, despite many of the players being friends of Coppola he had flown over to Ireland for the shoot, they are not a bad lot. Unsurprisingly though it is the handful who have experience that stand out the most. William Campbell gives a good account of himself, as does Luana Anders, far more impressive than she was in the Corman-directed Pit and The Pendulum (1961). Far and away the best of the bunch however is B-horror regular Patrick Magee, more restrained than his usual hamming but still showing a strong presence.

His part, despite being fairly small, ends up dominating the second half of the film. An honourable mention also goes to Karl Schanzer (as eccentric game keeper Simon) for being the only one to really get into the schlocky spirit of things. And on that note, it should come as no surprise to learn that those slightly crazed moments with Schanzer were directed by someone else (Jack Hill). This footage was inserted post production at the behest of Roger Corman. So these scenes have nothing to do with Coppola. This is why the young director’s little opus doesn’t quite work. Coppola seems to have thought he could make the film rise above its B-movie roots by trying to give it some dramatic credibility. But this proves fruitless for the format and budget, not to mention his own inexperience at this point. He should have paid more attention to the work of his employer Corman: his gleeful indulgence and vibe of showmanship that would make Grand Guignol classics from shoestring quick flicks.  🙂

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