Dementia 13 Review

Allegedly written in just three nights, shot in nine days and costing $42000, Dementia 13 was 24 year old Coppola’s third feature, having made two ‘nudie’ pictures also under the tutelage of B Movie legend Roger Corman. The key reason Dementia 13 even got made was because Corman had recently finished The Young Racers and had come in under budget. Corman gave these extra funds to Coppola and tasked him with raising additional funds and writing and directing a B-Grade horror picture along the lines of Psycho.In many ways Dementia 13 fulfils this; it was cheaply made, 90 minutes long and makes use of the blonde starlet, Luana Anders, who even strips to her underwear for a swimming scene shot underwater.

Louise (Luana Anders) loses her husband, John, after he has a fatal heart attack whilst they are on a rowing boat. Realising that she won’t get his family’s large wealth if John dies before the family matriarch, Lady Haloran, Louise decides to conceal his death and travel to the family home in Ireland to keep up appearances and figure out how to get to the money. The remainder of the film is set in this Irish stately home, filmed entirely on location, again at the request of Corman. At the Haloran home Louise encounters a sinister past to the Haloran family as John’s sister, Elizabeth, drowned as a child. She also encounters an axe wielding maniac who adds the necessary gore and violence to the film.

It is not clear at any point in the plot though as to why the film was called Dementia 13. Like many B Movies the title appears to have had more to do with helping to sell the picture than having any logic within the narrative.

Once the film was finished Corman was not entirely happy with the result and asked Jack Hill to shoot additional scenes, possibly to beef up the action. Corman also enlisted the then young director Monte Hellman to film a very William Castle style gimmick, an opening sequence in which a psychiatrist warns the audience about the film they are about to see and introduces the “D-13 Test”, designed to weed out those who will be unable to cope with the intensity of the film. The film then begins with the scene of Louise and John on a row-boat at night and with John having a heart attack. Clearly constrained by the budget, Coppola shot the scene in a minimalist style and the result is a very striking and memorable scene. It is perhaps a stretch, but a comparison can be made between this scene and the scene later in Coppola’s career in Godfather Part II with Al Pacino and John Cazale. After this first scene the opening credits roll and these are made up of a series of interesting and surreal images mixed together.

Apart from a few striking moments, mainly the more exploitative scenes, the film is something of a let down after this intriguing opening. The plot seems confused, the dialogue stilted and the pacing is somewhat lethargic. The reality though is that all of these negative aspects are most likely due to time and money restraints. It is worth remembering when watching Dementia 13 that Coppola was not asked to make a three hour arthouse masterpiece, nor would he have been allowed to. He was asked to make B picture and when placed alongside the majority of 60s B Movies, this is an interesting and absorbing one. Underwater photography, fluid camerawork and a carefully constructed mood all point towards a growing talent and this would still have been noticeable in Dementia 13 even if Coppola had not gone on to the success that he has had. This is not a forgettable minor work by a major director but something of a B Movie classic and an important step in the career of Coppola.