Producer Roger Corman is primarily known for two things. What most people know him for is a lot of B-grade and occasionally C- or D-grade movies, often in the horror and suspense genre. But inside Hollywood, as shown in some featurettes on the producer, he’s known for being very generous when it comes to giving people a chance in film making. In the case of Dementia 13, a production assistant who had done some uncredited directorial work on a couple of “nudie cuties” — low budget softcore porn works — wanted a chance at directing a real film. Corman was working on The Young Races, and allowed the young man to use the same set and filming crew, and a few of the actors to film a script the man had written.
The young man was Francis Ford Coppola, and the film was Dementia 13, his first official director credit. From that beginning, Coppola went on to other films, which immediately began attracting critical attention. (His very next film, You’re a Big Boy Now, nabbed a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Geraldine Page.) It’s possible that without Corman letting Coppola make Dementia 13, his later works including The Godfather may not have happened.
Which would have been a great tragedy.
Corman remained as producer, and the film bears some of the hallmarks of both Coppola and Corman. The marketing, especially, is classic Corman — I can’t really picture Coppola, even early in his career, putting a line about passing a terror test on his movie posters. The title of the film was meant to be Dementia, but an existing film already had that title; this normally wouldn’t be an issue, but Corman added the 13 to distinguish it. Coppola has said that Corman reasoned this would make it more likely to be replayed on the 13th of each month.
Dementia 13 is a horror suspense film, centered around the Haloran family in Ireland. Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) is an American woman married to the eldest son, and a stranger to the family. They’ve arrived, at John’s mother’s insistence, for the annual observance of daughter Kathleen’s funeral. Louise, cold and calculating, is waiting for Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) to pass on and leave John her estate. Unfortunately for Louise, John precedes his mother in death, suffering a heart attack during an argument with Louise. As a stranger to the family, Louise will be left with no inheritance if this is discovered. She hides the body, makes up a story about John having to return to New York on urgent business, and works on worming her way into the good graces of Lady Halloran and her other sons.
For some reason, I keep hearing Electric Light Orchestra.
The idea of having a character with traditional femme fatale characteristics using her wiles on non-romantic targets is an interesting one, and plays out very well — largely due to the excellent choice in actress. Luana Anders is pretty, and capable of a cool delivery that seems to be just short of suggesting any particular passion. She’s almost warm at times, almost angry at others, almost cheerful… but never quite committing, always holding back and calculating. She’s contrasted with another American Haloran bride(-to-be), played by Mary Mitchel. Kane — who has possibly the least feminine name ever — has more of the genuine warmth and concern that Louise pretends to. The rest of the cast is also pretty solid, with both interesting characters and skilled actors. Eithne Dunn is terrific as Lady Haloran, driven by depression into a form of insanity over the loss of her only daughter, and as overtly nasty to her daughters-in-law as Louise is secretly. Richard, played by William Campbell, is somber and broody, and Billy (Bart Patton) is more open and cheerful. And Patrick Magee makes a decent lead character as Dr. Caleb, brought on the grounds to aid with Lady Haloran’s health but drawn into investigating the murders that start taking place.
Yes, murders. Louise’s scheming is only one of the plots, as there’s also an axe-wielding serial killer. It makes the film an interesting blend of a typical psychological thriller and an early-day slasher movie. While the eventual revelation of the killer’s identity isn’t terribly surprising, the way the film moves through its paces is definitely entertaining to watch.
The film, shot in black and white, looks terrific. Even at this early stage, Coppola is on his way to becoming a skilled director, with excellent choices for lighting and framing. The mood of each scene is easily felt early on, whether it be a cheerful scene, a pensive one, or one due to be interrupted by fear.
Dementia 13 is a film that will probably appeal to several types of potential audience. Horror fans will appreciate the early slasher feel to it. Suspense fans will like the way Coppola plays with the standards of the genre. And, of course, Coppola fans will want to see it just for the sake of completeness — and will be rewarded with seeing a skillful, if not yet masterful, piece of directing.