You can’t fault Dementia 13 for its ambition: a gothic, slow-burn horror film thick on atmosphere and dread. You can, however, fault director Francis Ford Coppola and producer Roger Corman for everything else: stilted dialogue, nonsensical plot, and overall clumsiness and ineptitude. Although he had done work on a couple of softcore nudies, Coppola considered Dementia 13 his first “real” directorial effort. When Roger Corman finished his film The Young Racers (1963) $22,000 under-budget, Coppola was given the leftover financing and instructions to make a cheap knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), set in Ireland. Banging out a script in three days with the (uncredited) help of art director Al Locatelli, Coppola herded up a group of actor friends from UCLA and performers from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre to bring his macabre vision to life.
The product was a confused mess and so underwhelming that Corman ordered additional expository dubbing and extra sequences of gore and murder directed by Jack Hill. In hindsight, Dementia 13 might be a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess. For beneath the chaos of the production, the first few glimmers of Coppola’s genius are revealed.
The plot is pure pulp. A young woman named Louise (Luana Anders) travels to her husband’s ancestral mansion where she tries to ingratiate herself into her mother-in-law’s will. The problem is that she is the only person who knows that her husband is actually dead of a heart attack. If the truth of his whereabouts are made known before she gets into the will, she will be completely disinherited. But her scheme takes an unexpected turn when she stumbles upon the mansion’s terrible secret involving a dead little girl and a vengeful murderer.
Like Psycho, Louise is unexpectedly killed off by an unseen assailant about a third of the way through the film. Coppola doesn’t just channel Hitchcock’s decision to murder the female protagonist, he misdirects the audience by originally focusing on a red herring plot: in Psycho it was Marion Crane defrauding her boss; in Dementia 13 it was Louise defrauding her mother-in-law. And, once more like Psycho, the culprit is eventually revealed to be one of the family members who goes into uncontrollable homicidal rampages when confronted with memories of childhood trauma.
Much of the confusion surrounding the plot comes from a crucial case of miscasting: Coppola hired similar looking actresses to play both Louise and Kane (Mary Mitchell), the fiancée of one of Louise’s brothers-in-law. Because of this, many viewers can fall into the trap of thinking that they’re the same character. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first act: the first 10 minutes follow Louise and her journey to the mansion; then we cut to Kane arriving in Ireland and also traveling to the mansion. This gives the odd impression that Louise arrives twice and gets two very different receptions from the family. By the time both Louise and Kane appear in the same scene together, we are completely lost as to who is who. Important pieces of exposition concerning the mansion and the family are delivered to Kane, not Louise, thereby furthering confusion concerning who the protagonist truly is. And by the time Louise gets killed off, following the plot becomes nearly impossible.
But there still are compelling elements of Dementia 13. Corman’s dub-work overlaying Coppola’s patient visual language gives the film the feel of an old-time radio drama. The film is full of striking imagery: a quarreling couple rowing a boat over a deserted lake; a dead body miraculously preserved on the bottom of a lake-bed; decrepit, run-down rooms full of dusty and broken bric-a-brac. The ideas of inter-generational familial guilt and the inescapability of past sins are themes that would become central to Coppola’s oeuvre, particularly his Godfather trilogy. And finally, the juxtaposition of intense, graphic violence with overt aspirations to high art is demonstrated here.
At his best, Coppola was always a director torn between the art cinema and the grindhouse. Whether it’s the baptism/execution climax of The Godfather (1972), the Festa assassination of The Godfather Part II (1974), or the Flight of the Valkyries helicopter assault in Apocalypse Now (1979), it was the struggle between both sides of the cinematic spectrum of “good taste” that propelled Coppola towards greatness.
With Dementia 13, Coppola glutted himself on exploitation. From then on, there was nothing left for him but the pursuit of the sublime and what film school snobs call “art.”