From the opening shot, the viewer already knows something is not right. Well, actually, they probably know well before the first shot, probably even before the opening titles – films produced by Roger Corman have a reputation that precedes them: low-budget, exploitative, and without taste. Which does not mean they are without merit. Take a look at the biting social commentary and hilarious wit of A Bucket of Blood (1959), the vibrant art direction and cinematography of Masque of the Red Death (1964), or the utter bizarreness of The Trip (1967), and you will see that Corman’s films can move beyond the simple shock and awe of B-movie infamy
At any rate, the opening shot of Dementia 13 is indicative of the eerie strangeness to come: from an aerial view, a dock and a rowboat take up most of the screen; the high contrast black & white obliterates any movement of the water, any indication that there is something there other than blank space. After a moment, two characters enter. First a man dressed in a black suit holding a radio to his ear, then a platinum blonde woman with a white sweater, then some dialogue. They row off into blackness.
The remainder of the film is just as bleak: the initial plot to con an aging matriarch into leaving the estate to her eldest son and daughter-in-law is overthrown by an axe murderer plot, both of which are aided by a family ghost story about the youngest daughter’s death by drowning. For such a short runtime (75 min.), there is a whole lot going on, but somehow it works. This is probably because Dementia is able to keep us guessing by constantly messing with our expectations about genre. Are we watching a horror film? A noir? A family melodrama?
The elephant in the room is Francis Ford Coppola. Dementia 13 is his film! Why all this talk about Roger Corman? I won’t go as far to say, “Without Corman there would be no Coppola,” because that would be wrong. However, Corman was able to give Coppola the opportunity to work in film outside of the studio system. During the post-war years, the Hollywood studio system was beginning to fail. Studios like MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount were vertically integrated, owning and controlling all levels of production from the filming and editing to the marketing and distribution, even the theatrical exhibition. Since the studios were tight on cash, they only made films they knew would sell (history never repeats, but…). In this vacuum, people like Roger Corman started making their own films outside of the system, with their own money and their own ideas about what would sell. This marked a rebirth in American independent cinema. This new production model, with its reliance on low-budgets, opened up the opportunity for risk. Corman was able to give people like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Peter Fonda, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Penelope Spheeris, and Francis Ford Coppola the chance to work on feature films for the first time.
Which brings us back to said elephant. Before Dementia 13, Coppola had worked on two other projects of Corman’s, The Terror (1963) and The Young Racers (1963). After Racers wrapped, there was an extra $22,000 dollars left over, and that money was used to produce Dementia. This quickie production (insert crass joke about first times) gave Coppola the chance to write and direct his first feature film, and therefore started him on his ascent into the American film canon.
Though Dementia has some typical markers of the B-movie – a boom mic even creeps into a shot around 20 minutes in – it also has some strong and even explicit similarities to the artfulness of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Coppola was actually ordered by Corman to write a script similar to Psycho (1960) in order to ride off its success. In the finished product (which had some reshoots by Jack Hill due to disputes between Coppola and Corman), three major plot points from Psycho are very apparent: the impetus for the narrative action being based on stolen money, the preservation and fetishization of the dead through dolls, and the murderer who turns out to be the least suspicious of the bunch.
However, there is a much stronger Hitchcockian undercurrent at work in Dementia – Coppola’s use of neo-realism. Coppola’s camera lingers on present action before and/or after main characters come into the frame, and overall there is a simple, straightforward feeling to the editing; one cut proceeds after another in chronological order. The film was also shot entirely on location at Howth Castle in Dublin, Ireland, which gives it an entirely different feel from some of the earlier Corman horror productions like The Terror, which were shot on leftover Hollywood sets. But the most important aspect is that there are no “real” ghosts in Dementia. The horrific aspects of the film are deeply psychological, connected to past trauma and unstable personalities. Ghouls, goblins, and the split between scientific and mythological explanations of phenomena that provide much of the tension for early horror and gothic narratives are completely left behind. All we are left with is the frightening possibilities of the human mind. And if you’ve seen Apocalypse Now, you know the possibilities are endless.
– Paul Gonter