At this point in his life, Francis Ford Coppola is all about legacy. An octogenarian, he’s practical enough to know that time is fleeting and that there are some films in his oeuvre that simply aren’t going to re-frame themselves. The legacy of work from the 1970’s is definitely secure and needs no extra effort in a bid for historical significance, despite his continually tinkering with Apocalypse Now (1979). But for some of the others, the orphans that seemed monumental, had higher-than-average expectations, or were twisted or mishandled at some point in post-production, those films seem like giant let downs or, worse, the sign of a filmmaker who had an immense gift only to lose it once the 1980’s crept in.
So it was with some surprise that Coppola decided to add Dementia 13, his true debut film from 1962 which was made for producer Roger Corman, to a pile that included projects such as The Cotton Club, The Oustiders, and One From the Heart. Not necessarily known as a disaster, missed opportunity, or even a bad film, Coppola still refused the mulligan that’s allowed for feature debuts and went back in and cleaned it up anyway.
The production history behind Dementia 13 is kind of long and storied for a film that is so brisk. In a nutshell, Roger Corman neophyte Francis Ford Coppola convinced his boss to allow him to use a location Corman had already utilized in Ireland to shoot a very small horror film he penned in as much time as it did to shoot the film. Post-production created something of a headache for Corman and director Jack Hill, also a Corman protege, was drafted to write and shoot some additional footage to pad out the film and to give it some of the necessary jolts to make it a successful horror film.
Like so many of Coppola’s films, Dementia 13 deals with the family dynamics surrounding a clan steeped in darkness and ritual. It opens as unhappily married couple Louise (Luana Anders) and John Haloran (Peter Read) bicker over the new will that John’s mother has drafted that will leave him (and therefore Louise) out in the cold. During the argument, John suffers a fatal heart attack so Louise sinks the body into the lake and fools the rest of the family into thinking he’s gone back to New York on business. She banks of ingratiating herself into the family so Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) will change the will, but John’s brother, Richard (William Campbell), is suspicious of her while his own issues between his mother; brother, Billy (Bart Patton); and fiancée, Kane (Mary Mitchel) boil to the surface during and after the memorial for the Haloran’s departed sister, Kathleen (Barbara Dowling).
Dementia 13, like so many films that were released at the time, is an obvious cash-in on the Psycho-fever that was gripping the country but it ultimately feels too patchwork to be even halfway as effective. In fact, in its brisk, 68-minute director’s cut, Dementia 13 works better as a pilot to a television series that never was with Patrick Magee’s droll psychiatrist coming off as something like a combination of Quincy and Columbo running buck wild on Dark Shadows. Filmed at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Ireland, Demential 13 works far less as a contemporary horror film of its day but much more as a solid piece of mood and atmosphere. The attack on a child’s playhouse generates some nice chills as does an elongated sequence of mostly silence as Louise creeps around Castle Haloran looking for a way to press the advantage she has over Lady Haloran. But Dementia 13 stays mostly sanguine by drifting along on its cool, gloomy vibe that makes everything look as if it’s about to be drenched in an afternoon shower. Everything moves at a very nice clip but that has far more to do with the threadbare production than any foresight to pacing.
The thing that kind of interests Coppola is the way he can hang his fascination with twisted, dysfunctional families on a cheapo horror film. Coppola seems to really revel in all of the castle intrigue within the family with the buried grievances and the slimy interloper immediately making overt maneuvers to win favor within the family. William Campbell’s dark, brooding, and beefy brother never registers as anything but a red herring but it’s due to Coppola clumsily tipping his hand too far in one direction far too early and, honestly, the story not being too terribly clever in the first place.
Despite the regality of the location, this is very much a Corman production as the finished product shows obvious signs of a rush job with Eithne Dunn, only contracted to appear for a couple of days, conveniently disappearing at a certain point in the film and the very stark shadow of a boom mic is seen throughout an important scene with Kane and Billy. The film feels pieced together out of long and winding strands that just barely connect.
However, the film is helped immensely by Coppola’s revisit. What’s missing mostly involves a side character named Simon (played by Corman regular Karl Schatzer) who drinks a lot and accidentally wanders onto the Haloran estate while hunting. His absence robs the film of some screen time and one of its few kills but it’s hard to begrudge Coppola given Simon’s character was utterly pointless to begin with. Additionally, the “Dementia 13 Test prologue,” originally tacked on to the beginning of the film to both make sure the viewer wasn’t a complete maniac and to pad out the running time even further, is offered as an extra feature on the Vestron Blu ray but is not branched into the film given it was wholly a Corman concoction and had nothing to do with Coppola. Still, it’s a nice curio to have accessible if for no other reason than to get a fascinating glimpse into the kind of shameless promotion involved in cheap drive-in films of the day.
Despite the film’s absolutely gory and highly humorous final shot, Dementia 13 probably isn’t going to be anyone’s go-to pick to slake the thirst for some gothic horror. But it does serve as a fine look to an energetic and creative filmmaker who was ready to make the most with as little as he could while injecting a sense of nobility to the production that was in line with the kind of entertainment he loved so much as a child. At, for 68 minutes, what do you have to lose?
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain