First Fright: Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dementia 13”
Before he directed Dementia 13 (1963), film God and viniter Francis Ford Coppola had a good run writing sleazy screenplays and re-cutting films for filmmakers like Roger Corman (a Russian science-fiction film, Nebo zovyot, which became Battle Beyond the Sun in 1962). He sharpened his skills on schlock, working various jobs behind the camera, learning the various crafts involved in making a film. He dabbled in horror, science fiction, nudie cuties. As some might say, he paid his dues. It was his work as a dialogue director on Tower of London (1962) and a sound man on Corman’s The Young Racers (1963) that landed him the job of directing Dementia 13. Corman had $22,000 remaining from The Young Racers, which came in under budget, and asked Coppola to direct their next film. (Corman regularly reused cast and crew and props and sets.) Coppola cajoled producer Raymond Stross to provide another $20,000 by pre-selling the European rights, something Coppola kept from Corman. Al Locatelli, the film’s art director, helped Coppola write the screenplay in a few days. Much of the crew of The Young Racers also worked on Dementia 13, and actors William Campbell and Patrick Magee performed in both films, and many of Coppola’s friends from UCLA had behind-the-camera jobs. Coppola enjoyed complete creative control during shooting, but afterwards producer Corman took the film away from its director and brought in Jack Hill to shoot additional scenes. Corman also added a prologue, directed by Monte Hellman, in which a psychiatrist talks straight to the viewer, intoning warnings in an ersatz William Castle gimmick.
Thankfully, the new Blu-ray presents the director’s cut of Dementia 13, scanned from Coppola’s personal print and trimmed of the useless Corman additions. The film is a mostly serious affair, even morose at times, compared to Coppola’s subsequent horror films, Dracula, released in 1992 by Columbia, a flamboyant, gorgeously garish gothic comedy and an unrelenting display of cinematic bravado splashed with the kind of lascivious lunacy and bountiful barrels of blood that one would expect from Corman, and the oneiric Twixt (2011), one of the director’s most personal, pained achievements, another mordant comedy that features a supporting role for Edgar Allan Poe and his pedagogical expatiations. But it is Poe’s unredeemable melancholy that haunts Dementia 13, not the usual cheap-o silliness one expects from The Filmgroup. The film opens with the stark juxtaposition of a virginal white boat against inky and utterly still water. John Haloran (Peter Read) and his wife Louise (Corman perennial Luana Anders) bicker about his affluent mother’s will, which dictates that all her money is going to a charity in the name of “Kathleen.” This flummoxes Louise, who wants to climb the class ladder. John, overexerted from rowing the boat and the row with his wife, drops dead of a heart attack, which means Louise doesn’t get any money, further infuriating her. So she dumps her hubby’s body overboard (Coppola himself made his on-screen debut playing the body) and plans to pretend that he’s still alive so she can ingratiate herself into the will. She goes to the atemporal Castle Haloran (Howth Castle, in the Dublin suburb of Howth), where she meets Richard (Campbell), who does metal sculptures, and Bill Haloran (Coppola’s UCLA friend Bart Patton). She later sees the pair perform a bizarre, morbid seance with their mother, Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne), in honor of their dead sister Kathleen.
Louise conspires to defraud the superstitious family by stripping to her underwear (a Corman favorite) and planting the dead Kathleen’s toys at the bottom of the pond so that they will float up later, as if the seance succeeded, but her plans go awry when she gets axed to death by a proto-slasher psycho shrouded in impermeable shadow. (Shades of Brando draped in darkness in Apocalypse Now .) Compared to what low-budget horror would start doing a decade later, with Friday the 13th (1980) and the innumerable bastard spawns of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), it’s a pretty tame kill, just shots of legs writhing under the water intercut with fingers clenching at grass and the anonymous killer hacking away, without gore, without showing much. The inquisitive family doctor (Patrick Magee, prodigiously drunk throughout production and impressively articulate with his elocutions), sets out to solve the mystery, which doesn’t take too long considering the film’s short run time.
The film has a languor to it, an awful air slowly seeping into the frame and perfusing the dark corridors of the castle. Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) this is not. The scene of Louise ambling through the halls and rooms is, of course, inspired by Hitchcock, who, as Coppola says in the commentary, could shoot a character wandering around slowly, speeding things up gradually and then stopping abruptly and letting us sit in the sudden silence, waiting for something to happen. It’s the anticipation that kills us, after all.
Dementia 13, released in the UK with the much cooler title The Haunted and the Hunted, was, at Corman’s behest, modeled after Psycho (i.e., the early demise of would-be final girl Louise) and previous Psycho rip-off Homicidal (1961), directed by William Castle; and yet Dementia 13 (which played as an inscrutable double feature with Corman’s X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes ) feels more in the spirit of Mario Bava, albeit with a lower body count. Coppola already shows off a valorous affinity for eccentric angles and negative space swallowed up by darkness. His cinematic chops elevate pseudo-Psycho claptrap into a moody tone poem. (Corman key grip Charles Hannawalt was the director of photography, and Coppola credits him with composing the shots so sedulously.) On the commentary track, Coppola says that the best part of the shoot was him getting to play with different lenses, figuring out which ones to use with high angles, low angles, Anders’ face framed by those bright blond bangs, the castle looming like a great gothic menace. This is a man who loves movies, who appreciates the craft of making movies, a director of great fecundity. If the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying, and the pacing sometimes slightly off, we can forgive Coppola because he conjures such an iniquitous atmosphere, a 24-year-old novice working with $40,000 on a nine-day shoot. As Corman told Coppola: “You’ve got a picture, kid!”
The director’s cut of Dementia 13 is now available on Blu-ray.