I have a great love for B-movies of the 60′s. The rushed production values often led to inspired creative decisions and the financial limitations forced directors to use different techniques at creating a suitable atmosphere. And so it came to pass that Roger Corman, the king of the B-Movies, hired young director Francis Ford Coppola to helm a shoddy rip-off of Psycho. The idea was to release a movie that was gorier and more thrilling than Psycho, preferably with bloodier murders and nudity. Promised complete creative freedom, Coppola drafted up a treatment that overjoyed Corman.
A Gothic drama, Dementia-13 was set in an Irish castle and followed the attempts of a young American gold digger Louise in gaining the fortune of her ‘eccentric’ mother-in-law. The movie starts slow after the death of Louise’s husband in a row boat from a heart attack. Rather than report the death of her husband, she attempts to hide the body and travels to Ireland hoping to win over her mother-in-law whom she had been warned of many times as being strange and unpredictable. Arriving at the homestead, a massive spooky castle, Louise soon discovers that describing the widow heads of her departed husband’s family as ‘eccentric’ and ‘strange’ was putting it mildly. In fact, her husband’s two brothers, the introverted Billy and the frustrated artist Richard, are almost as insane as their deluded mother.
The entire family is stuck in a perpetual state of mourning seven years after the death of Kathleen, a daughter born when Lady Haloran was in her 40′s. Billy explains to Louise that Kathleen drowned in the estate’s lake, an event that he witnessed firsthand and still suffers from. The tragic death of the young Kathleen marred Lady Haloran’s mind prompting a yearly ritual ceremony ending in her total collapse. Family physician Dr. Caleb, apparently somewhat amused by the family’s shared mental illness, has no more luck in convincing Lady Haloran in taking some prescribed rest than he does in identifying Louise as the con artist that she clearly is.
The film comes into its own when Louise attempts to use Lady Haloran’s madness against her by stripping to her underwear and staging a miraculous event involving Kathleen’s prized possessions floating to the surface of the lake. Mid-way through the scheme, she discovers what appears to be Kathleen’s body in a kind of shrine at the bottom of the lake. Things get more complicated from there when an Axe murderer arrives, but the moment is chilling as it startles the viewer in a kind of nightmarish way.
The film was reportedly troubled with hasty script revisions and several new scenes added at Corman’s insistence, filmed by several long-time Corman associates. Coppola was furious about the changes and the film received a mixed response. As an added gimmick, the film was preceded by a short warning that the movie could cause mental collapse and audience members were polled by a special questionnaire that gauged the viewer’s psychological stability. A cult film to this day, Dementia-13 is now in public domain, meaning that no one has taken the time to release a proper cleaned up version on DVD. With the initial print still missing, a clear copy may never surface unless the folks at 2 Entertain get involved (this crew has done wonders with grainy Doctor Who material).
Shown as part of the Off-Beat Cinema program (check out the official site here for local coverage), I was lucky to catch this flick late at night. While Dementia-13 makes little sense, it’s an interesting early experiment in modernizing the classic Gothic horror tale for film.
If you manage to find Off Beat Cinema on your local cable, this weekend’s film is Tod Browning’s Freaks, one of my favorite horror movies.