Tuesday, July 15, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dementia 13 (1963)

If nothing else, Dementia 13 is -- at least -- a powerful reminder that everybody has to start somewhere.

All snark aside, this super low-budget horror film (approx. $22,000) is Francis Ford Coppola's directorial debut; one made under the auspices and purse-strings of Roger Corman and filmed utilizing the cast (Luana Anders, Patrick Magee and William Campbell) and locations (primarily an Irish castle and grounds) of Corman's The Young Racers.

Coppola's assignment was to create cheap horror in the psychological, violent mode of Hitchcock's runaway hit, Psycho (1960), and in that task, he succeeded rather admirably. For this is a black-and-white thriller filled with surprising axe murders, and which features the notorious "Janet Leigh Trick" (killing off a star in the film's first act). And, of course, underlying all the events is a "demented" killer boasting a surprise identity (one revealed just in time for the climax).

Dementia 13 depicts the unusual tale of the Haloran family, a moody Irish clan who - even after seven long years - reunite annually to celebrate the anniversary of a family drowning. You see, the three brothers (Richard, John and Billy) and the sick Mama all miss darling little Kathleen, the only sister among the boys...but she died under mysterious circumstances in the pond and now every year, the matriarch works herself to the point of "hysteria" at Kathleen's graveside.

This year is different, however. This year, brother John -- who suffers from a bad heart -- has brought along to the family gathering his wife: the delightfully scheming Louise (Luana Anders), a gorgeous if icy blond. She doesn't understand all the hand-wringing over Kathleen, and she certainly doesn't understand why Ms. Haloran wants to give away all the money in her estate to a charity in Kathleen's name. Louise and John could certainly use that money, for one thing, at least according to avaricious Louise.

In the film's compelling first scene (filmed almost entirely from a variety of doom-laden high angles), Louise and John go out by impenetrable night on a row boat ride, and Louise lays into John about his strange family, and how he should go about acquiring the money from their estate. To drown out his hectoring wife, John turns up a portable radio, and some weird 1960s rock/jazz music plays beneath the scene, jangling audience nerves. The combination of the heated argument and the bizarre music generate a weird tension here, and even though the film has only just begun, you'll feel yourself on edge.

When John dies suddenly of a heart attack on the boat ride, Louise promptly gets rid of the corpse (and the radio...) in the water, and returns to the Haloran estate determined to keep his death a secret and acquire her rightful share of the Haloran inheritance. To achieve this end, she will have to drive old Mama Haloran bonkers, she presumes. We thus follow Louise on a hair-raising (and dark) night-time trip into Kathleen's bedroom, which has remained untouched since the girl died seven years ago. There, amidst the detritus of a child's life, Louise tiptoes quietly and begins to gather Kathleen's dolls and toys, which she plans to cast about the grounds in order to terrify Mrs. Haloran. In a splendid bit of foreshadowing, Coppola cuts in this scene to an extreme close-up of a creepy Monkey Grinder armed with an axe. Louise is also unaware that she is being watched...

Louise's devious plan goes badly awry, however, when Louise dips into the local pond (where Kathleen died) to deposit some of the old toys. Deep beneath the surface of the water, she sees Kathleen's body apparently resting beneath a make-shift shrine with a gravestone that reads "FORGIVE ME." When a scared Louise comes back to the surface, she unexpectedly encounters an axe murderer on the grounds; one with his own twisted memories of Kathleen...

Before the film is done, this shadowy axe murderer has decapitated a local poacher (a gloriously gory head-rolling moment) and rather viscerally threatened Mrs. Haloran in an old work shed.. The family doctor, Caleb (Magee) -- here the Martin Balsam/Arbogast figure -- suspects that moody Richard (Campbell) is the culprit; that he may be insane. Caleb tries to warns Richard's hopelessly naive American fiancee, Kane (Mary Mitchel) -- a girl "raised on promises" -- that they should not be married on the family grounds. After all, Kathleen died during a wedding ceremony...and no wedding has been held in the castle since.

Kane tries to have faith in her gloomy husband-to-be, but learns of some disturbing news from Richard's brother, Billy (Bart Patton), a man-child type (think Anthony Perkins, please). After Kathleen died, Billy dreamed of being visited in his bedroom by an insane person...one who wanted to throw him into the pond and kill him. Billy has only now just realized that the insane person is...Richard. The scene in which Billy reveals his dream to Kane ("I'm always a little boy in my room...") generates a fine sense of the creeps and is perhaps the most unsettling moment in the film. Billy describes how the "dark figure" told him he was insane, and asked anyone else in the room who was insane to "nod his head" too. *Shiver.*

All the family secrets are revealed in the third act, and if the killer's identity doesn't come as a total surprise well, you certainly can't blame Coppola for putting up a good effort with precious few resources and scant little time (the screenplay was reportedly written in a matter of days). Although the slavish borrowing from Psycho grows difficult to ignore even over the sparse running time (75 minutes), Coppola nonetheless manages some inventive touches that hint of his authentic talent; not the least of which is how his moody camera/location work suggests earthly murders and unearthly hauntings simultaneously. I also appreciate how Coppola happily spreads the dysfunction around the Haloran family. "A nightmare has disturbed this family for six years," notes Dr. Caleb, and he's absolutely right: Mom is hysterical and likely in denial; Richard is belligerent and emotionally closed-off, and Billy is so haunted he's just never grown up. One event -- the death of a child -- has impacted all of them horribly, and any of them (or all of them...) could legitimately be around the bend.

Set in and about a gloomy Irish castle ("The kind of place you expect a ghost to wander around in," says one character), and with more than a touch of the film noir (especially in Louise's hard boiled voice overs early in the film), Dementia 13 fully displays seeds of Coppola's greatness, even if they had yet to flower fully.

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