If necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, then Roger Corman is the dad of opportunity; swooping in and throwing around minimal coin but expecting maximum return (or at the very least, something in focus). But the King of the B’s has always attracted the hungry and talented, and so it was when a youngster by the name of Francis Ford Coppola was afforded the chance to helm his first (soft core flicks aside) official feature, Dementia 13 (1963). Part Psycho, part semi-Gothic psychodrama, it served as a stepping stone between Hitchcock and Bava, eventually leading to a slasher formula that is still impossible to kill.

Released by American International Pictures in late September on a double bill with Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (which I’ve Dusted Off here), Dementia 13 impressed some critics upon release, at least more so than what was normally afforded Corman’s films at the times, and that has a lot to do with the lean and muscular direction of Coppola. The story of how it came to be is lower bill heaven.

Dementia 13 was made with $22,000 dollars left over from Corman’s The Young Racers’ production. Corman then handed that coin off to Coppola (who was a sound technician on the project) to write and direct a cheap Psycho knockoff while still in Ireland, where Racers wrapped. Coppola raised another 20 grand on the sly, wrote it on the fly, and cranked out a little beauty that shows talent to burn.

Our film opens on a dock, as Louise (Luana Anders – Pit and the Pendulum) and John (Peter Read – Freakshow) Haloran push off on their boat for a moonlit ride. This isn’t exactly a Venice rendezvous however; there’s much disharmony between the two, as Louise yells her displeasure at John at being cut out of the wealthy Haloran estate. Her apoplectic state causes John to croak right then and there from a heart attack, and so off she trots to Ireland to meet up with the rest of the clan all the while pretending John is still alive and merely on a business trip.

As she tries to ingratiate her way into the family, we’re introduced to the rest, all in various states of discord: the angsty in her pantsy matriarch, Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne – The Mutations), oldest son and sculptor Richard (William Campbell – Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), younger sibling Billy (Bart Patton – THX 1138), and, just arriving from America, Richard’s fiancé Kane (Mary Mitchel – Spider Baby).

Everyone is gathered for the annual graveside memorial for little sis Kathleen, who accidentally drowned seven years earlier. Louise has designs on tapping into Lady Haloran’s fragile psyche to ensure her inheritance, but a shadowy figure with a literal axe to grind has other plans for the family…

Dementia 13 has a shopworn conceit, at least to the modern viewer; we’ve certainly encountered this scenario (more or less) in many films over the years, but at the time switching out candelabras for wood cutters distanced the material from its moldy Agatha Christie origins. Notice I didn’t say elevate – Psycho took that out at the knees, dragging horror into the 20th century, kicking and screaming from the cobwebbed castles into a more natural light. At least that’s how more refined folk saw it; but horror lovers lapped it all up, from Hitch to this to Straight-Jacket (’64) with Joan Crawford and beyond, Mario Bava setting the slasher in early stone with Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), which owes quite a bit to this in terms of familial distrust.

It’s this distrust and paranoia that fuels Dementia 13,and gives it the parlor room ambiance that Coppola couldn’t help but infuse; it would appear that he’s always been an old fashioned filmmaker who keeps up with the times but isn’t usually ahead of them. It’s when he strays from the parlor that this bird sings. You will find within beheadings, two lake burials, and many vicious, visceral hatchet attacks that fully place it in the Psycho bloodstream.

You’ll also see a young artist in command of the camera, making placements that do elevate the film stock above perfunctory B-roll footage; Coppola’s shots have purpose and flow, and if they don’t necessarily illuminate the material, they do liven the senses beyond the meager budget. It’s certainly not the look that sets Dementia 13 in B movie territory (although I’m not sure where else I’d rather be).

The cast is firmly entrenched there, however; not that anyone really overplays, but they understand this ain’t Othello no matter how grand the material has occasion to be. I’ve purposefully left out many plot details that would permit the cast to go broad, yet they manage to (barely) stay on the side of decorum. Admirable restraint, considering the circumstances. My VIP award though goes to Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange) as the family physician who fancies himself a bit of a sleuth. Wild eyed and vibrating at a unique frequency, Magee’s personality bounds from the screen with every performance; it’s not the other actors’ fault that he comes with a built in quirkiness that sets him apart.

Great filmmakers usually show their hand right out of the gate; hunger and eagerness with a belief in ability go a long way towards forgiving Styrofoam tombstones and pin-holed black sheets. Dementia 13 has the distinction of not only being an assured debut, but a valuable link in the slasher chain. Perhaps this review will convince someone to stop play on The Godfather for the seventieth time and watch a fresh faced Coppola tear up the screen. And by someone, I mean my wife; it’s Michael Corleone’s destiny, I got it.

Dementia 13 is available on Blu-ray from HD Cinema Classics.

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