Dementia 13 (1963): All in the Past?

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If Roger Corman had produced and directed The Godfather, I can only assume that it would’ve come out with creepy paintings, a brambly plot, and plenty of gratuitous violence—a lot like Dementia 13 (alternate title, The Haunted and the Hunted). However, in point of fact, the credit for this proto-slasher belongs to Corman’s apprentice, Francis Ford Coppola.

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While filming in Ireland, B-movie king Corman gave the young Coppola permission to recycle sets and locations for his directorial debut—as long as it didn’t conflict with the shooting schedule for Corman’s film The Young Racers. And the result, Dementia 13, though uneven and sometimes nonsensical, nevertheless heralded a teething talent.

Rife with allusions to classical noir and horror, the film tries very earnestly to marry drive-in shock value with aspirations to art cinema. If the little movie doesn’t quite succeed at both, it still proves pleasurable viewing, with the added retrospective fun of picking out moments and images that echo what Coppola would go on to do.

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His stab at a Val Lewton-style horror flick centers on an enigmatic family of Irish landed gentry, the Halorans, basically the O’Corleones. Lady Haloran, widow of a famous sculptor, clings to memories of her daughter Kathleen, who mysteriously drowned 7 years before the beginning of the story.

The fearsome Haloran matriarch seems to cope with this pain by toying with her American-educated sons: corpulent businessman John, brooding sculptor Richard, and bashful, boyish Billy. Not only does Lady Haloran blame them for Kathleen’s death, but also reminds them that she intends to leave the entire family fortune to charity. Each year, she stages a special memorial for Kathleen at their ancestral castle and holds court.

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 Lady Halloran projects some extra-strength Irish guilt onto her progeny.

Interestingly, we first see this family through the eyes of an outsider, Louise, who married one of Lady Haloran’s sons. The opening sequence of Dementia 13 plunges us right into the drama. John succumbs to a heart attack during a nocturnal boating excursion in the opening scene of the film, so Louise, convinced she can get Lady Haloran to change her will, dumps John’s body and pretends that he had to suddenly depart for a business trip.

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This opening scene on the pond at Castle Haloran immediately creates an atmosphere of musty, neo-Gothic dread. The inky blackness of the night, the jarring high-angle compositions with the dock or the boat jutting in the frame at high angles, and the bitter stalemate between husband and wife all combine to paint one hell of an ominous canvas. Right from the beginning, we’re ready for some spine-tingling and we’ve got a suspenseful plot: will Louise connive her way into Lady Haloran’s graces before anyone realizes that John’s dead?

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The cinematography of Dementia 13 remains consistently stimulating. The wistful, unsettling clutter of a dead child’s room, the shadowy corners of an old castle, an abandoned sculpture studio, and the swampy nightscape of the deadly pond all take on an appropriately freakish, menacing aspect.

Even beyond the spectacularly grisly main murder set piece with baleful underwater photography, this ambiance injects tension into a decidedly unfocused plot. I particularly admire how the castle always seems on the verge of devouring the people or crushing them. Film brat Coppola no doubt took a few lessons from classic Hollywood claustrophobic, location-focused thrillers such as The Spiral Staircase and Sunset Boulevard.

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[If you don’t like spoilers don’t read the next two paragraphs.]

One can also discern the influence of Psycho, as well as the earlier Lewton thriller The Leopard Man, through the shifting mechanisms of identification in Dementia 13. The film gives us a nasty, semi-guilty protagonist—imagine Kay Corleone minus all the good intentions and plus an unholy amount of greed—only to kill her off in the manner of Marion Crane. Ironically, although we don’t really like Louise, our grief at her gory demise reveals how much we depend on some character, any character, to be an entry point into the film.

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So, Coppola eliminates her and swaps her out for another questionable hero, the cynical, quirky Dr. Caleb who dabbles in psychoanalysis and mind games. (In fact, the last shot of Louise during the big murder sequence is immediately followed by the first shot of Dr. Caleb!) Our director takes great relish in showing us all how helpless we are as viewers of the cinema; we’ll let virtually anyone take our hand and be our guide into the story-world. Rather like the matriarch of the Haloran clan, bending under the influence of anyone who claims to be in touch with her dead daughter, we audience members tend not to be picky about whose company we keep in order to get what we need.

Most of all, I savor Dementia 13 because it gave me a new way of looking at Coppola’s later work. When I started to think about it, The Godfather is closely related to the structure of the Gothic horror film: a dysfunctional family with an unavoidable, contaminating darkness at its heart, slowly sucking everyone in.

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As Welch Everman noted in his entertaining and insightful guide Cult Horror Films, Dementia 13 “sets up an interesting contrast between the Old World and the New. In America, we tend to overlook and even reject the past in favor of the present, but in Europe it’s often the other way round.” You can’t shake your heritage, Coppola powerfully suggests with images and plot.

The challenge of reconciling the past and its influence with one’s present identity weaves constantly through the plot and recurrently haunts the characters. Even during one of the more lighthearted moments of the film, one of the American-raised Halorans winces at a sip of Irish whisky he’s been pressured into drinking.

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In both The Godfather and Dementia 13, traditions, rituals, relics of the past cannot be easily extracted from daily life—and from the psychology of even the most apparently modern of the characters. I would argue that Michael Corleone in particular has an uncanny, return-of-the-repressed quality about him: he assimilated too well into American life… and reveals how closely capitalist business strategy is related to age-old mafia violence. At the risk of giving too much away, the killer in Coppola’s debut film also seems like the most normal of the bunch.

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Like the elusive axe-murderer of Dementia 13, Michael Corleone (to say nothing of Colonel Kurtz and Sergeant Willard who would come along much later) possesses a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature that drives the plot forward and makes him a strange object of repulsion, empathy, and vicarious enjoyment—after all, no kills, no thrills. To sum up my point, just as a reading of Dementia 13 can be enriched by the knowledge of Coppola’s later triumphs, so too does this low-budget movie shed light on different facets of the director’s later work.

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For those innocent of my mania for over-analysis, Dementia 13 also preserves the surface delights and nostalgia flair of the early 1960s, including covetable sunglasses, dome-shaped hairdos, and an airport where you half expect the Beatles to show up. The genuine textures of the Irish pub scene will likewise warm the hearts of all ye sons and daughters of Eire.

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Whether you’re interested in auteurist scrutiny or just looking for a spooky good time, pop the popcorn and check out Dementia 13.

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Since the film is in the Public Domain, you can watch Dementia 13 on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive. I also recommend Hulu, because of the superior image quality, where you can also view it for free, but the advertisements are frustrating, I confess.

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