“Are you afraid of death by drowning?” enquires the poster for Dementia 13.
Never one to shy away from a conversation, I engaged as best I could. “Well, doesn’t sound too nice,” I replied.
“Have you ever attempted suicide?” it threw back my way. Flicking a glance over my wrists, I answered in the negative.
“Have you ever thought of committing murder?” a question to which I retorted, “Have you ever seen Loch Ness?” Feeling smug with the subtle subtext behind my snarky counter, I stood for some minutes before realising that this antiquated film poster was probably not going to commence with me something approaching a dialogue. No, for these are questions to be asked of oneself, a flame to the fuse of an interior monologue, not an artfully crafted conversation piece. But what they are also is a snapshot of the questions to be apparently shot at you in the “D-13 Test” – a cinematic aptitude test scheduled as preparatory ointment for the impending viewing of Dementia 13. Alas, my DVD loaded up before I got the results back; who knows what the verdict was?
Not forgotten and banished to the depths of obscurity like some of its Corman kin (Wasp Woman step forward), Dementia 13 still remains notable in the minds of the quotidian. The reason for this? It is, in effect, Francis Ford Coppola’s first feature. Whilst he may have laboured on some other low-budget fare prior to this, never before had there emerged a film that had even the possibility of enticing the roaming eyes of a '60s wild-child. Quite clearly with this in mind, the only question that crops up is: how does Dementia 13, the opening salvo to a long and chequered career in the motion movies, compare with that legendary masterpiece of which Coppola would be forever known, the artistic inventiveness and profundity that is Jack?
A good question and one that finds its answer somewhere in seventy-odd minutes of retro, drive-in theatre fun.
Out enjoying a night’s bickering on a rowing boat, a married couple spit insults at each other. Invective is punctuated by contemplations about the stipulations of a will belonging to the man’s mother. Deathly sick by the snub it gives her, the lady harangues the man, for she wants all the monies. Just as rejoinders concerning “to hell with you, nothing’ll come your way so long as I don’t right now die of a heart attack,” the man dies of a heart attack. However, thankfully he makes the best of the situation, bragging to the last breath that due to this whole dying malarkey she’ll get little more than a kick in the gut, and maybe a few Sliders DVDs, but fuck all riches.
So he dies, she throws the body in the water and sets about ingratiating herself with the in-laws. But before she has time to work her way up to good natured jokes about menopause, she’s dealt a hand of murder – her blonde life extinguished by some mysterious figure in black. The family, unbeknownst to them the full, gory details, continue with their regular routines. Yet, how regular we can deem their routines when said days concern the repetition of the funeral of an infant daughter/sister who snuffed it some years back remains to be seen. Who killed our femme fatale? And what of these subsequent deaths – who’s behind all this bloodshed?
The veil of the whodunit floats down from the rafters, crinkled and still smelling from the time Francois Ozon played with it. It’s the old story: here are some potentially homicidal gents living in the Irish countryside, surrounded by peat and comical caricatures (“aye, by the balls of Finn MacCool!” cries the groundsman), and we are to guess the assailant. Is it the older brother with the Johnny Cash face? How about the younger brother with his disturbingly gap-laden dreams? Perhaps Patrick Magee and his shyster moustache?
The fact that legend orates that Corman requested Coppola make some Psycho-esque picture to capitalise on all that Hitchcockian fervour in the streets is of little surprise. Teasing hints at ghostly doings and various spectral agencies up to no good quickly give way to a spattering of the tangible. Trauma, repressed memories, and psychological precariousness are the order of the day here – fully embracing the Hitchcockian method of conjuring horror, albeit with added blood and less implied violence.
At the beginning I was slightly worried having missed the first dozen installments, but it turns out that no background knowledge need be possessed to enjoy the film – and enjoy it we will, as surprising as that may be. Whilst I couldn’t give a shit about Coppola and his pursuits in the world of Mario Puzo, Dementia 13 is well-shot and decently written, and looking at it, it comes as no surprise that he went on to successes beyond this. Plus, like Bucket of Blood, it shows that AIP and Corman could make films of quality, not weighed down by nonsense like having a budget. With a plot nicely rounded up at the end, and a story comfortably diverging from its hackneyed inception, I eagerly await the next chapter, Dementia 14: Jack’s Revenge.