Early in the truly remarkable career of Francis Ford Coppola, after his trifling with nudie-cutie work for the partially 3D The Bellboy and the Playgirls and before his screenwriting breakthrough on This Property is Condemned, the enterprising UCLA Film School graduate signed on for hazardous duty with Roger Corman. He re-edited a Russian Science Fiction epic, served as a dialogue director and, despite little experience operating a Nagra tape recorder, volunteered as a soundman for a film to be made in Ireland. When Corman found himself with sufficient funds to make another picture, Coppola came up with a script and a production plan in a big hurry, and Dementia 13 was born. At least, that's the story that has been handed down over the decades.
Filmed in haste at an Irish manor house, Dementia 13 neither looks nor sounds like a cheapie, as Coppola has a firm grasp on horror movie essentials and his rather distinguished cast is more than up to the task of playing a dysfunctional family "held in the clutches of an unexplainable curse." Made in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Coppola's story leans heavily on psychology, yet avoids the sleazy excesses of movies like William Castle's Homicidal or the clumsy trick plotting of some of the Hammer thrillers written by Jimmy Sangster. The ugly poster art reproduced for the Blu-ray cover makes this Filmgroup production look like cheap goods, but it's one of the better horror efforts of the early 1960s.
The unhappy Halorans orbit around the eccentric Lady Haloran (Ethne Dunn), who worships a daughter, Kathleen, who died as a child ten years before. Convinced that Kathleen is still "present", Lady Haloran won't permit her three brothers, now grown, to say anything negative about the compulsory funerals and other rituals she holds for the long-dead girl. Oldest brother John Haloran (Peter Read) dies of a heart attack. To avoid exclusion from Lady Haloran's will, his wife Louise (Luana Anders) hides the body and tells everyone that he's left on a long trip. Meanwhile, brother Billy (Bart Patton) still obsesses about being the last person to see Kathleen alive. Temperamental artist Richard (the late William Campbell) sulks moodily when he's not sculpting with his welding torch. Richard's fianceť Kane (Mary Mitchel) arrives just in time to witness more mysterious happenings. Local Doctor Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee) is poking into family business. Realizing that John's disappearance will soon raise difficult questions, Louise takes steps to put undue stress on Lady Haloran's own weak heart. Little does she know that someone is creeping around the estate at night... with an axe. †1
Ronald Stein's creepy music and Paul Julian's uncanny title artwork (he's the director of the macabre animated short The Hangman) get Dementia 13 off to an appropriately eerie start. Perhaps some of the film's acting is on the weak side, as the cast is a blend of Irish pros mixed with Hollywood hopefuls and regulars from TV, A.I.P., and the Roger Corman stable. Top-billed WIlliam Campbell had the most experience as an MGM contract player, and was also the brother of R. Wright Campbell, a regular Corman writer. Actors Mary Mitchell and Bart Patton were married, and knew Coppola from UCLA's Theater Arts Department.
Corman uses his resources well. The large stone house representing the Haloran spread has all manner of atmospheric architecture and dank corridors to exploit for the film. Cinematographer Charles Hannawalt's camera work is excellent -- he was a key grip on many pictures but this is his only credit as Director of Photography. Coppola depicts a mystery killer creeping about without giving away the secret of his identity. His key horror scene, a gruesome axe slaying that comes out of nowhere, is a real keeper. The beautiful victim is dragged through the mud and grass on a dark, dank night. Although the film hasn't the body count of a giallo thriller, more mayhem is yet to come: producer Corman ordered some second-unit work by Jack Hill to up the body count. Coppola also delivers some mild sex thrills when Kane and Richard Halloran make out, including one scene in a hayloft right after their wedding. And what exotic horror attraction would be complete without at least one scene with the imperiled heroine wandering the dark mansion in a flimsy nightgown?
Mary Mitchel and the always malevolent Patrick Magee give standout performances, while Luana Anders gets several good moments perfecting her sly "I don't know where my husband is" act. Coppola adds stylized touches to a couple of flashbacks to the fatal childhood accident, approximating the eerie mood of The Innocents with diffusion filters placed over the camera lens. Coppola's dialogue scenes aren't dull and his scary moments deliver some impressive shocks. Dementia 13 is a feature debut to be proud of.
HD Cinema Classics' Blu-ray of Dementia 13 is a Combo Pack that also contains a standard DVD pressing of this title. Being a Filmgroup picture on which Roger Corman never bothered to register a copyright, the film fell into the public domain ages ago and the bargin bins presently overflow with bogus discs of the title with transfers that range from "so-so" to "why bother?" HD Cinema Classics' copy is the best I've seen the title, yet it's far from perfect. It's been restored in "spectacular High-Definition Blu-ray" and looks clean and stable, but is quite contrasty. Although by no means difficult to watch, blacks do clump up and light areas become blobs of white. A video restoration comparison shows that heavy image processing was used to neutralize many tiny horizontal scratches, dirt specks, etc., the trade-off being that the picture is always a bit less sharp than we expect a Blu-ray to be. The image is consistently attractive.
The box text saying that the film is "transferred from original 35mm elements" is accurate if you accept a projection print as a 'film element' -- the term is usually applied to pre-print material (assuming this really is a projection print and not a low-con positive printing element). I've been told where the original elements for both this feature and The Terror are held, and neither were accessed for these Blu-rays. But I must end by affirming that I haven't seen Dementia 13 on home video looking better than this Blu-ray. And the price can't be beat, either.
A frustrating Catch-22 comes into play when the actual original negative and printing elements of a public domain movie are owned by a studio. The studio will hesitate to put perfect video copies out there, because the Public Domain labels will just copy them and flood the market with product. This inferior P.D. product dilutes the demand for good copies, making a quality edition a bad business choice. Although it (hopefully) no longer happens, whole vaults of original 35mm negatives were junked in the 1950s after TV sales were made. We're lucky that studios don't throw these un-exploitable films away, as a waste of vault space.
HD Cinema Classics' disc has a slightly tubby audio track that is difficult to understand for a short patch of dialogue near the front of the film. The disc carries Spanish subtitles (only), an original trailer and a postcard reproduction of that unwholesome-looking original artwork. Who in 1963 would guess that Dementia 13 is a good horror thriller on the basis of that poster art?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dementia 13 Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.