BOOTLEG FILES 292: “Dementia 13” (1963 horror flick from Francis Ford Coppola).
LAST SEEN: Clips are available on numerous web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Too late – it is in PD hell for eternity!
What can you say about a film that was written in three nights, shot in nine days, and cost $42,000 to make? You could say that we’re talking about Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dementia 13.”
Contrary to popular belief, the 1963 axe slasher feature “Dementia 13″ was not Coppola’s first effort as a filmmaker. He had already helmed a pair of no-budget “nudie” flicks in 1962 called “The Bellboy and Playgirls” and “Tonight for Sure,” but those efforts weren’t exactly opening many doors for him. Coppola’s career actually got started when he was in Ireland in 1963 working as a second unit director and sound recording technician on a Roger Corman cheapie called “The Young Racers.” The always economical Corman finished his film ahead of schedule and under budget. In fact, he had $22,000 left over. Rather than return the money to his financiers, he handed it over to aspiring filmmaker Coppola with the assignment to turn out an inexpensive B-grade horror flick along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
Coppola, who was only 24 years old, banged out a script in three nights. The rush to create the screenplay was so great that Coppola typed his screenplay directly on to mimeograph stencils, which were used in those pre-photocopier days for creating multiple copies. It doesn’t appear that the screenplay was altered when shooting began, which may explain why much of the film’s dialogue and scene development is awkward and shaky.
In any event, Corman approved of the script, which was originally titled “Dementia.” The title was later changed to “Dementia 13″ when it was discovered a 1955 film called “Dementia” already existed – there is nothing in Coppola’s screenplay that suggests what “Dementia 13″ is supposed to mean. If Coppola was vague on the title’s meaning, he had no problems selling the concept – independent of Corman, he raised an additional $20,000 by pre-selling the English theatrical rights based solely on the story he concocted.
And what a wacky story it is! “Dementia 13″ focuses on the Haloran family, who resides in a creepy castle in Ireland. The matriarch, Lady Haloran, is still grieving over the drowning death of her daughter. Her three adult sons are a weird trio. One of them is married to a scheming blonde named Louise, who is obsessed with Lady Haloran’s will. When Louise’s husband John inconveniently dies of a heart attack while rowing a boat across a lake in the middle of the night (don’t ask why), Louise hides the body and creates the excuse that her man is away on a hastily called business trip.
Louise then begins to insinuate herself into Lady Haloran’s life, going as far to planting the dolls of the older woman’s dead daughter as a means of suggesting beyond the grave communication was possible. However, the arrival of a mysterious axe murderer at the castle puts a dent in both Louise’s plans and her skull. The remainder of the film is a mad dash to figure out who’s running about with a swinging axe.
In creating “Dementia 13,” Coppola opted to work with a moody visual style that played heavily with shadows, tilted angles and tight shots of his cast. This helped to create a sense of imbalance that mirrored the creepiness of the story, and it also served to camouflage the film’s rather obvious low budget. The film’s celebrated opening, with Louise and John in the rowboat at night, is brilliant in its mixture of the artistic and the economical. The sheer blackness of the twilight setting offers a chilling void as the couple row their way into the darkness that sets the plot into motion. It also helps to disguise the scene was shot in a studio tank, which would have been obvious if the sequence took place in the afternoon. (The unlikely hour of the rowing is explained by John being unable to sleep – although why he is wearing a suit and tie to go rowing is another unexplained mystery.)
Coppola also had the good fortune to bring in some larger than life talent for a smaller than life film. Luana Anders, a Corman staple, offers the right blend of sex and bile as the scheming Louise. Her premature demise offers a great example of scream queen chic: drop dead gorgeous at the moment of dropping dead. (Louise’s early exit is also an obvious “Psycho” rip off, with the blonde leading lady being killed early in the story.) Two stars of “The Young Racers” were kept for “Dementia 13″ – brooding William Campbell as the bad boy scion of the Haloran clan and Patrick Magee as the decidedly unorthodox family doctor. Northern Irish character actress Eithne Dunne is equally effective as the off-kilter Lady Haloran – in fact, her screen persona is so strong that it is genuinely astonishing to discover that her film career was, for the most part, littered with small and undistinguished parts.
“Dementia 13″ was wrapped in nine days, but problems arose immediately when Corman screened Coppola’s footage. In his official capacity as producer, Corman thought Coppola’s film lacked the level of violence and gore needed to sell the film to the horror flick crowd. A legendary screaming match between Corman and Coppola took place, and Coppola’s refusal to add more blood to the film resulted in Corman hiring Jack Hill to shoot a new scene where a scuzzy groundskeeper is decapitated. Corman was still unhappy with the film, and he brought in Monte Hellman to shoot a new opening in which an alleged psychiatrist warns the audience of the shocks they will experience in the film. To determine if the audience members can withstand the film’s extremes, the movie shrink presents the “D-13 test” – hence, an explanation of “Dementia 13.” This test was used in the advertising poster for the film.
American International Pictures released “Dementia 13″ on the bottom of a double bill with Corman’s “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes.” The Coppola film was barely acknowledged by the critics and ignored by the public. Coppola never worked for Corman again – of course, he managed to find work elsewhere. “Dementia 13″ was quickly relegated to late night TV broadcasts, albeit with the opening Monte Hellman prologue cut from the broadcast prints. That edited version was the basis of the film that is in wide release today.
“Dementia 13″ has fallen into the public domain, and for years it has been available from low-rent labels. The wide availability of the film, however, has not propelled it into classic status. This is not surprising, considering that it is surprisingly mundane despite its pedigree and production history – if the film was made by Francis Ford Jones, no one would care to remember it.
But if you are curious to see where the guy behind “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” first got his groove, zoom into “Dementia 13.” Hey, we all have to start somewhere!
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