Before The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola made cheap, quickie horror classics like every other young director. He learned his trade at the “Roger Corman Film Academy,” where fresh filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Ron Howard graduated by finishing films in a hurry with barely more than pocket change for funding. Dementia 13: Director’s Cut, is now available on Blu-ray HD and 4K digital. The 1963 cult classic has been beautifully restored to its dark and murky glory, but are audiences ready?
Can you endure the shocks of Dementia 13? On occasion our minds accept harmful suggestions, William J. Byrd, the foremost expert in hypnotherapy Roger Corman could afford, advises the audience in the “D13 Test” extra included on the remastered Blu-Ray. Certain persons, for their own good, should not watch horror motion pictures, the audience is told. The doctor then asks 13 questions to which a seemingly hypnotized young woman writes yes or no on a blackboard. Have you ever spoken aloud to yourself in the mirror? Do you always think carefully before you speak? Have you ever raised your arm in anger to a close relative?
This is one of scenes slashed from the director’s cut of Dementia 13. These are questions Francis Ford Coppola does not want his audience to ask.
The scene, with its echoes of William Castle film gimmickry, was directed by Monte Hellman, and added by Corman to fill in Coppola’s sparse slasher suspense mystery. The film was supposed to be a cheap reupholstering of Castle’s low-budget horror film, Homicidal, which itself was lifted from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. “Dementia 13 is a “a rip-off of a rip-off,” Coppola chuckles in the “Introduction by Coppola,” which comes as an extra.
Dementia 13 is more of a love letter than a rip-off of Psycho, with similar story beats, characters and motivations. Coppola’s cameras squeeze subjects into ever-tightening frames. In the new restoration, the close-ups are amazingly clear. The actors can’t hide bad skin days, and you can see every hair on every mole.
Hitchcock’s 1960 classic follows Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, an adulterous embezzler who runs off with the loot into the arms of a mama’s boy who then leads the story. Dementia 13 opens with Louise (Luana Anders), a young gold-digger desperately looking for heart pills for her husband, John (Peter Read), and rowing frantically, before practicing her newly-dead husband’s handwriting for a note to his mother.
Besides horror and cult film aficionados, fans of Star Trek: The Original Series, should watch Dementia 13. It stars William Campbell, who played two memorable roles against Captain Kirk (Williams Shatner). In “The Trouble with Tribbles, he was Klingon Commander Koloth, who probably put the fur-baby in the coffee which went with the skipper’s chicken sandwich. In “The Squire of Gothos,” he played the most dangerous game, hunting Kirk for sport as Trelane, the spoiled son of indulgent godparents. In Dementia 13, he plays the moody sculptor Richard Haloran, heir to his mother’s fortune, who is engaged to be married to Kane (Mary Mitchel), who thinks she is paying Lady Macbeth.
The Haloran family are a wealthy Irish clan and their matriarch is Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne). She is a suspicious woman, tortured by the ghost of her favorite child, Kathleen, who drowned as a child. The Lady is now very ill, and calls the rest of the family to her, basically so she doesn’t have to travel far to attend another wedding.
Her son John’s (Peter Read) new wife Louise (Luana Anders) is already fantasizing about digging graves, while Billy Haloran (Bart Patton) prefers other means of cover. The family physician, Dr. Caleb, is played by veteran creepy actor Patrick Magee, who may be best known for driving Alex to jump out of a window in A Clockwork Orange. Here he drives young budding psychopaths to his favorite local pub. Every word from his mouth sounds like a sad warning from someone who has done it all, but looked the other way.
Dementia 13 was made with the money that was left over from The Young Racers, another Corman low-budget film which Coppola worked on as sound man. The production was so rushed, the script wasn’t done when Coppola got to Ireland for shooting, we learn in the extras. He finished writing it with the art director Al Locatelli in three days.
According to the synopsis, Dementia 13 is “quintessential gothic horror, wrapped in the twisted mysteries of a family’s deepest, darkest secrets. A widow deceives her late husband’s mother and brothers into thinking he’s still alive when she attends the yearly memorial to his drowned sister, hoping to secure his inheritance. But her cunning is no match for the demented, axe-wielding thing roaming the grounds of the family’s Irish estate.”
The gothic settings of the Irish castles, and the generational curse inherent in the old country, evoke the later Italian Giallo films even though Dementia 13 is shot in black and white by cinematographer Charles Hannawalt. The ghostly Kathleen, who drowned in the estate’s pond, is an ever encroaching presence, amidst creepy dolls and monkeys, shadows and long, dark hallways.
Oh, and there’s an ax-murderer. Wanna talk about burying the lead? Psycho dispensed with the central figure just as the audience began to really worry about her. When Louise goes off to play with dolls, the audience is similarly left emotionally rudderless. This is the character we’ve been focusing on since the beginning of the film. Who’s ready for a wedding?
Dementia 13 joins director’s cuts of Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Part III, The Cotton Club, and The Conversation, and continues his maxim of less is more. Coppola removes six minutes from the original release, in addition to the preamble. He also re-edits sequences and restores the original ending, which Corman cut.
Produced by American International Pictures, Dementia 13 came out as the bottom half of a double bill with Corman’s X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes. It is worthy of a second look, if only because of how clearly it can now be seen. The film still works as the psychological thriller obscured by the ax-wielding phantom.
Dementia 13: Director’s Cut is now available on Blu-ray HD and 4K digital.