Written by Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring William Campbell, Luana Anders, Bart Patton, Mary Mitchel, Patrick Magee
Released September 25, 1963 (Los Angeles)
RT 75 min.
Home Video HD Cinema Classics (Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)
Francis Ford Coppola was working in the sound department for a 1963 movie called The Young Racers when producer Roger Corman found himself with $22,000 left over from its budget. He wanted a cheap copy of Psycho and Coppola quickly wrote a screenplay, selling him on it with a scene in which a half-naked woman surfaces from a pond to find herself at the feet of an axe murderer. Coppola was given free rein to direct the movie; however, Corman was not happy with the final product and brought in Jack Hill to film additional footage.
With its turbulent history, you get just about what you’d expect with Dementia 13 (1963). It’s apparent that it was a rushed production with a hastily-written script. This results in not necessarily a confusing story, but an overall uneven one. The extra scenes blend pretty well; I couldn’t identify them without assistance from the internet. And I didn’t mind the occasional inner monologue to help explain plot points. What you don’t get, however, is something you might expect: signs of a future great director in Coppola.
Yes, a couple scenes are staged well. The half-naked woman surfacing from the pond at the feet of an axe murderer is well done. However, there’s no sense of dread throughout the movie. Castle Haloran is big and creepy, but only because it’s supposed to be, not because of atmosphere or mood. There’s no sense of suspense once the first murder finally occurs. I never felt the mystery that the movie poster touts with one of its taglines: “Which one is the killer?” In fact, if not for that, I wouldn’t have known we were supposed to ask that question.
Corman got exactly what he wanted, though: a cheap copy of Psycho. Luana Anders plays Louise, the scheming wife of John Haloran (Peter Read) who will go to any length to make sure she’s included in her mother-in-law’s will, including covering-up her husband’s death so she’s not written out of it entirely. She’s the substitute for Psycho‘s Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a blonde anti-heroine who’s shockingly dispatched about halfway through the movie. Louise is the twice aforementioned half-naked woman, but her axe murder is not terribly original.
Instead of Marion’s blood circling a shower drain, Louise’s blood runs down her body and dissipates underwater. Three years after its inspiration, this is more rip-off than homage. The second murder is tangential to the main story, serving the purpose of demonstrating the serial nature of the killings. In theory, it’s more graphic, but it has less impact than the sight of Louise’s body hanging on a meat hook late in the movie’s blessedly brief running time of only 75 minutes. (Another thing Corman wanted was a longer movie.)
With the will of a rich old woman being such a prominent plot point, you’d think there would be more sibling rivalry among the two remaining brothers, Richard (William Campbell) and Billy (Bart Patton). There’s not. In fact, once Louise disappears, the will is not mentioned again. Instead, the fate of their young sister, Kathleen (played in flashbacks by Barbara Dowling), is front and center. The family holds an annual ritual to remember her death by drowning seven years ago. There’s vague mention of the castle being haunted, presumably by her.
However, it’s another plot point barely realized. We’re told there are secret passageways, but we don’t see them. There are no thrills and chills while inside the castle. Instead, key moments happen outside in the dark or underwater in the murky pond. We can barely discern the family is “living a nightmare” if not for Dr. Caleb (Patrick Magee), who appears after Louise exits the movie. He seemingly has a history with the Halorans since Kathleen’s death; however, I still don’t understand why he orders the pond to be drained.
Well, I mean, it’s so they can discover a shrine to Kathleen built in stone, but… you know, maybe the story is just a little confusing after all. This is not the type of thriller about which you should have to think in order to fill its plot holes. Dementia 13 is not a horrible movie, but it’s horribly average. I’m actually not as disappointed in Coppola, though, as I am in Corman. He was making the Poe films for AIP at the time, clearly demonstrating the difference between a film where he was “hands on” and one where he was “hands off.”