Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dementia 13” (1963)

In 1963, director Francis Ford Coppola was deep into his apprenticeship with schlock mogul Roger Corman.  That year also found Coppola in Ireland, working as the sound man for Corman’s feature THE YOUNG RACERS.  When filming was finished, Corman found that he had a substantial amount of money leftover in the budget.  He may not have been a great film director, but Corman was undoubtedly a shrewd businessman, and he saw an opportunity to invest that money in Coppola’s untapped talent.

Corman gave the money to Coppola, with an assignment to stay behind in Ireland with a few of THE YOUNG RACERS’ cast members and make a low-budget horror film in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  Coppola responded to the challenge with DEMENTIA 13, his first true feature film of his own making.  While today the film comes off as understandably dated, low-budget and schlocky, it also offers a captivating insight into the mindset of a young, hungry director who would go on to become one of the greats.

The story of DEMENTIA 13 is well-rooted in classical and cliche horror-tropes.  When her husband unexpectedly dies of a heart attack during a late-night boating excursion, Louise Haloran (Luan Anders) unceremoniously dumps his body overboard and heads to his family’s ancestral home in Ireland.  Acting under the guise that her husband is still alive and absent on a business trip, she maneuvers to get written into his mother’s will so she can cut out with a hefty portion of the family’s wealth.  What she doesn’t count on, however, are the meddlings of her husband’s two brothers (William Campbell and Bart Patton), their macabre obsession with their deceased sister Kathleen, and a mysterious axe murderer stalking the grounds.

Despite DEMENTIA 13’s campy, trashy roots, the cast seems to be aware that they’re working with a great director, accordingly giving themselves over entirely to their performances.  Anders is the archetypal Hitchcock blonde at the center of the story, and her shrewd, calculating ways aren’t as off-putting as they are lurid and compelling.  Campbell and Patton are the brothers to Louise’s dead husband, and they embody stubborn conviction and haunted torment, respectively.  Veteran character actor Patrick Magee delivers a standout performance as Justin Caleb, the family doctor whose gruff mentality raises questions about his true intentions within the story.

DEMENTIA 13 is positioned as a slasher film, but it also dabbles in the murder mystery genre by giving us a gallery of characters with their own potentially-murderous motivations.  Due to the speed in which Coppola wrote the screenplay, the identity of the murderer is easily deduced about halfway through the film– which doesn’t make for much in the way of suspense.  However, the pure excellence of Coppola’s craft, even at this early, low-budget stage, is undeniable.  DEMENTIA 13 is absolutely the kind of film that shouldn’t hold up fifty years after its release, but there’s a small, palpable aura of prestige that lingers over it.  Yes, it’s shlock, but it’s the kind of schlock you might find given a reverent release by the Criterion Collection.

Coppola’s camerawork is simplistic, belying the shoestring nature of the production.  However, its minimalism draw inspiration from classical filmmaking techniques that give the film a timeless feel.  This low-key approach amplifies the few stylistic flourishes peppered throughout;  the opening high-angle shot looking down on a rowboat bobbing in the lake, as well as the floating, dreamlike nature of the underwater photography come to mind.  As lensed by Director of Photography Charles Hannawalt, the 35mm film image uses the low-budget necessity of the black-and-white format to its advantage.  The contrast is crisp and moody, alternating between naturalistic and high-key lighting scenarios as needed.  A vicious knifing sequence halfway through the film uses rapid-fire edits to create disorientation and a sheer sense of terror. The homage is so apparent that it matches PYSCHO’s infamous shower murder scene shot-for-shot.  This doesn’t read so much as Coppola trying to rip off Hitchock as it does as an example of Corman’s business model for deliberately emulating successful films in his cheap knock-offs.  The same practice still exists today, most notably in “masterpieces” like SNAKES ON A TRAIN,  churned out monthly by cheap production companies like The Asylum.

The music of DEMENTIA 13, provided by Ronald Stein, is appropriately gothic and mysterious.  It’s traditional in that it’s composed like most orchestral scores of its day, but Coppola’s rebelliousness as a young filmmaker gets another chance to shine with the sly inclusion of diagetic rockabilly music.  Using prerecorded source tracks may be commonplace in films now, but In the early 60’s, it was virtually unheard of.  The practice didn’t really gain steam until a generation of film brats like Coppola, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese adopted it as an aesthetic trademark.

As a low-budget genre/exploitation film, DEMENTIA 13 doesn’t give us much in the way of a personal insight into Coppola’s psyche or development as a filmmaker.  While it trades heavily in the tropes of schlock cinema, such as weak acting and easily-corrected inconsistencies (if the film takes place in Ireland, how come nobody is actually Irish?), it also carries a great deal of pathos and understated style.  It might seem dated by today’s standards, but I was surprised to find how effective DEMENTIA 13 was as an old school chiller.  Its gothic iconography has considerable spooky charm, and it’s easily one of the better films within Corman’s extensive library.  But most of all, it’s a solidly-constructed first effort from a blossoming filmmaker (who was still in film school, to boot) who was on the verge of shaking up the entire art form.

DEMENTIA 13 is currently available in high definition Blu Ray via HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest.

Credits:

Cast- William Campbell, Luar Anders, Bart Patton, Mary Witchell, Patrick Magee

Producers- Roger Corman, Marianne Wood

Writers- Francis Ford Coppola, Jack hill

Editors- Stuart O’Brien, Morton Tuber

Director of Photography- Charles Hannwalt

Production Designer- Albert Locatelli

Music- Ronald Stein