Appellate Judge Tom Becker's dementia has an unlisted number.
Are you afraid of death by drowning? Have you ever attempted suicide? Have you ever thought of committing murder?
Francis Ford Coppola was a young film hopeful who, like many young film hopefuls, got the chance to work with Roger Corman. When Corman finished shooting The Wild Racers in Ireland, ahead of schedule and under budget, he offered Coppola, the film's sound man, the chance to direct a "quickie" with the leftover funds.
Corman wanted something in the vein of Psycho, so Coppola—in a day or so—whipped up his own story of murder and madness set at an estate in Ireland. Corman is said to have disliked the finished product and brought Jack Hill and Monte Hellman in to shoot some extra scenes. The film played the bottom of a double bill with X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and then, like most Corman films, drifted away, forgotten.
Coppola, of course, was not to be forgotten, going on, in the '70s, to direct a quartet of films that regularly turn up on "best of all time" lists. Thus, Dementia 13 found its status elevated from quickie-cheapo shocker to first (credited) film by an important director.
But is Dementia 13 a lost Coppola classic, or is it merely…lost?
While visiting his family's castle in Ireland, John Haloran drops dead of a heart attack. Fearing that John's mother will cut her out of the will with John gone, his wife, Louise (Luana Anders, Easy Rider), disposes of his body and concocts a story that he's been called away on business.
John's death means that he'll be missing the annual memorial service for his sister, Kathleen, who mysteriously drowned seven years before when she was 6 years old. Mrs. Haloran (Ethne Dunne) has never gotten over this, and every year, after she and her sons—John and his brothers, Richard (William Campbell, Pretty Maids All in a Row) and Billy (Bart Patton, Gidget Goes Hawaiian)—put flowers on Kathleen's grave, she collapses.
Louise watches this and gets an idea. She'll try to convince her mother-in-law that Kathleen is trying to communicate with them from beyond the grave, haunting Haloran Castle. Mrs. Haloran, who'd never liked Louise, embraces the idea, and suddenly she feels she has an ally in her daughter-in-law.
But as Louise tries to step up her plan, something happens that changes the dynamics…considerably.
For a Psycho rip-off, Dementia 13 certainly hits all the right notes—including a Bernard Herrmann-inspired score by Ronald Stein (Spider Baby) and a midpoint twist that takes the film from a psychological puzzler to…well, something else entirely. It's not as eccentrically fun as William Castle's Bates Motel riff Homicidal, but it contains a fair share of shocks and grue.
The film is both entertaining and frustrating, filled with bizarre touches that seem like unrealized ideas rather than creative risks and are likely the result of the shoestring budget and frantic gallop to get it done. The opening, for instance: It's nighttime, and John walks down a pier. He carries a transistor radio playing a rockabilly song. He gets in a rowboat. Louise follows him, demanding to know where he's going, and he says he just feels like rowing. She climbs in with him, and they argue about his mother's will, which leaves everything to a charity in the name of Kathleen. John calls Louise greedy, and she says he shouldn't be rowing with a bad heart. He tells her she'd better hope he doesn't have a heart attack, as she'd then be out of the will completely, and then, on cue, proceeds to have a heart attack. He gasps, wheezes, insults his wife, and then tells her his pills are in his coat. She checks—the bottle is empty. Stupid John! She tries rowing back, but John doesn't make it, so she dumps him into the drink and concocts a plan to hide his disappearance.
OK. So we're given the set up—a will, a greedy woman, a deception—but in a scene that's way convoluted and feels out of step with everything that comes after. Coppola was attempting something tricky here, aping Psycho by pretending to tell one story and then switching to another, and then pulling the rug out again by switching to a third story later in the film.
But Coppola was a kid when he made this, and it shows. His set ups are clumsy, and the dialogue—much of it inexplicably and badly overdubbed—is stilted and wretched. Whereas Hitchcock gave the audience two straightforward stories in Psycho, Coppola's brew is weird and a bit confusing, and it doesn't really pay off. It's like the whole thing is one big "MacGuffin," and when we finally settle in to the heart of the film—a violent murder mystery—there are so many plot threads dangling already that it never really becomes focused or cohesive.
That's not to say it's not a fun film, and knowing that it was thrown together adds to the experience. Coppola makes good use of the gothic castle location, Charles Hannawalt's camerawork is interesting, and it's always great to see actors like Anders, Campbell (whose death I read about the day I started writing this), and Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange) doing a little scenery chewing. Plus, there are some well-staged scare scenes, and a charmingly lurid ending with a silly, simplistic reveal.
And now Dementia 13 is on Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray is from a company I'd never heard of called HD Cinema. I'll admit, my expectations weren't especially high. Dementia 13 has long been a public domain title, and wretched-looking copies have been floating around the discount bins for years. So I gave this a turn, with its transfer from "original 35MM elements."
The good news: Well, it's all here. The film isn't missing significant portions, and the print isn't jumpy; no odd cuts or major drop out. The image is widescreen, the audio serviceable, and the streaks, cracks, and marks that make some PD fare unwatchable have been erased.
The bad news: To get the print looking clean, they've DNR'd it to hell and back. The image is soft, and detail is only evident sporadically. At times, it looks less like film than like Xerox, and there are more instances of unnaturally smooth, waxy-looking flesh than you'll find on a Real Housewives reunion show. Contrast is too high, so anyone or anything appearing in a dark scene looks radioactive.
If you're looking for "Blu-ray quality," you're not going to find it here. But, while I was disappointed that there wasn't a sharper transfer, I can't say I was surprised or appalled. Maybe my expectations are lowered from years of watching third-rate exploitation and horror films on "budget" line videos and DVDs, but having the film without streaks and lines all over the screen and ugly jumps caused by missing frames cause me to look on this incarnation a little more kindly than if I were evaluating its worth as a Blu.
The set comes with a DVD copy, which is only a bit off from the Blu-ray. I've included a few stills from the DVD here so you can get an idea of how this looks:
In addition to the Blu-ray and DVD copies, there's a trailer and a brief restoration demonstration that basically shows streaks and speckles being ironed out of an old print to make the transfer you get here. There's also a "collectible card" with the poster art.
The Blu-ray is far from a technical marvel, but genre fans should be happy to finally have a home video release of Dementia 13 that doesn't look like it's been sitting underwater for seven years. The film is a slapdash and disjointed and ridiculous '60s horror concoction with some cool, stylish flourishes—which is why it gets a recommendation.
Plus, you can pick it up for around a sawbuck. Just forget that it's supposed to be a glorious Blu-ray.
Flawed as a film, flawed as a disc, but still not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: HD Cinema Classics
• Restoration Demo
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