“Dementia 13″ (1963)
Studio: American International Pictures (AIP)
Starring: William Campbell, Luana Anders, Bart Patton, Mary Mitchel, Patrick Magee, Eithne Dunne
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Running Time: 75 min.
Synopsis: A rich family in Ireland who are still mourning the death of the family’s youngest, Kathleen, are being terrorized by an ax wielding maniac.
Dementia 13 is one of my Top 10 favorite horror films of all time. After years of watching it I never tire of it. It’s just a great scary movie, which has all the elements that make a good horror movie. I first saw the film in early 1988 on USA Network’s Night Flight, the same program where I saw Night of the Living Dead and other great horror films for the first time. At the time I was really getting into watching horror films when I saw the film and it had a huge impact on me.
The film starts off with a couple, John and Louise Haloran, take a boat ride on a lake at night. As a rockabilly song plays on the radio, the two argue about the husband’s mother’s will and that she just wants to leave all her money to charity. Louise tries to convince John to get his mother to change it for he can get the money, but John knows the only reason why she married him was because his family is rich. Louise warns John not to get excited because of his weak heart, but it’s too late and he starts to have a heart attack. John laughs and tells her if he dies she gets nothing from the families inheritance. John doesn’t survive the attack and a panicked Louise dumps the body in the lake along with the radio. This is a great opening scene as the body of John sinks to the bottom and you see the radio float down as well while hearing the rockabilly song continue to play underwater. Then the excellent score of the film kicks in and the titles hit along with a cool animated sequence. The score by Ronald Stein and Les Baxter is one of my favorites of all horror films and up there with Halloween, Psycho, and Night of the Living Dead. It’s just so haunting and so strong it pierces like a knife.
Since John is dead now, Louise doesn’t want to lose a chance on getting the inheritance. She writes a fake letter from John to his mother, letting her know that he’ll be out of town on business and can’t stay at the family’s castle, but is leaving his wife there to help look after her along with his two brothers. She packs up his clothes and typewriter and throws it in the water. One confessing thing is that I wasn’t sure if John and Louise were at the castle all ready or somewhere else. Other write-ups have stated that after John dies, Louise travels to the castle to be with her in-laws, but after watching it again the couple is there from the beginning. After Louise writes the letter, she slips it under the mother’s door and the castle can be seen in the background when Louise goes out to throw John’s stuff in the water. It’s also mentioned in the next scene when the mother says to Louise that she’s sorry John had to leave so soon.
The Haloran family’s castle is set in Ireland. John’s two brothers, Richard and Billy take care of their mother in her old age, but she’s very clinging to her boys. John is married and soon will be Richard, whose fiancée, Kane just arrived to the castle to plan their wedding. The mother is very cold toward her and worried about her son’s future. Louise tries to warm up to the family and talks to the younger brother, Billy about Kathleen their sister who passed away. Billy explains she drowned in the family’s pond at a young age. Her mother still mourns her death and on the anniversary of that day, they have a ceremony by her grave.
On that day, the mother faints by the grave because the flower she threw on it died once it hit the ground. Louise takes this opportunity to suck up to the mother who is weak and out of it. She explains to her that she feels Kathleen’s presence throughout the castle and her spirit wants something. The mother is taken with Louise with her newfound concern for her dead daughter. Louise even takes some dolls from Kathleen’s room and attempts to place them in the pond for that they’ll rise up and look like it’s a sign from Kathleen. Louise ties of few dolls with string, strips down to her bra and panties, and dives into to the pond. To her surprise she finds a preserved body of the little girl at the bottom. Louise lets out one of the best underwater screams and then comes up from under the water only to be hacked into by an ax-wielding maniac. As the ax keeps coming down the scene cuts from Louise struggling to her legs from underwater franticly moving. After the killing, the murderer grabs Louise’s lifeless body by the hair and drags her across the ground. This was one of the most intense scenes in the film that builds great suspense throughout and presents shock after shock. Now there’s a killer on the loose and the question is who is it and what do they want.
The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which was one of his first directorial efforts and produced by Roger Corman. The film was made with left over money from Corman’s other production, The Young Racers, which Coppola worked on as a sound technician. Corman was going to direct the film himself, but couldn’t because of his busy schedule and gave the job to Coppola and told him to make a cheap-o rip-off of Psycho. Although it does have a Hitchcock vibe at a low budget level, Dementia 13 is a film on it’s own. It mixes different elements of horror from the gothic look and feel of the castle and landscape, which gives it a classic horror vibe to the gritty realism of the black and white film that it’s shot in, which gives it that modern look of the 1960’s horror that showcased killers and maniacs which was started with Psycho and later Blood Feast. The film presents a mood and atmosphere that is just pure eeriness and terror that is matched up with the best of the best of horror of all time.
Some of the scariest and memorable scenes throughout the film are; Louise looking in Kathleen’s room for dolls to put in the pond, is startled by a wind-up baby doll crawling on a table. Also she notices another toy that predicts her fate in a way. It’s a wind-up monkey toy with an ax chopping wood. The music hits perfectly as the toy ax goes down for the chop. Simon the local poacher gets beheaded by the ax-wielding killer while he’s looking for a fox. Very suspenseful scene with a few fake scares that make you jump before you get to the real kill. Any part where someone just wandering the castle at night, the place is creepy as hell. There’s a part where the family doctor Justin Caleb (played by Patrick Magee who was the star of other Corman classics and later on starred in A Clockwork Orange and Tales from the Crypt) takes Billy out for a drink to ask him questions about the strange happenings going on in the castle and the missing people. Billy starts to sing an eerie nursery rhyme when the doctor mentions about his nightmares. He sings, “Fishy, fishy, in the brook. Daddy’s caught you on a hook.”
That nightmare the good doctor was referring to is told to Kane by Billy in a scene before and this scene is one of my favorites from the film. First Billy describes that his room is all the way at the end of the castle and has to past through many creepy corners that are haunting memories of past family deaths. Kane asks Billy about his nightmares and he explains. He says that he’s always a little boy sleeping in his bed. He hears someone outside and looks out the window. A man is climbing up the wall into his room. He calls out to his mother and as she enters the room just as the man makes it up through the window. He hides in the shadows and says that he’s insane and that someone else in the room is insane. He says he’s going to nod his head and that other insane person will nod as well. He nods and Billy looks up at his mother and she’s nodding her head. She starts to laugh and then grabs Billy and throws him into the pond. Billy then remembers that the man in the shadows is his brother Richard. This scene always gives me chills when I hear it and I can visualize it in my head as he tells it and it’s frightening.
While researching the film, I learned that Corman wasn’t happy with the finished film and had Jack Hill (director of Spider Baby, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and others) shoot some additional scenes (the poacher getting beheaded was one of them) and also added some voice over with scenes with Louise to help tell the story better. Corman also said the running time was too short, so he had another filmmaker, Monte Hellman shoot a prologue that had a doctor talking to the audience giving them a test to see if they were mentally fit to watch the movie, kind of William Castle style. I never seen this prologue, it was never included on the film when it aired on television nor was it on the VHS and DVD versions.
There was also what they called a D-13 test handed out to theater patrons before the film. It had yes and no questions on it like “Do you often talk to yourself when looking in the mirror?” or “The most effective way of settling a dispute is with one quick stroke of an axe to your adversary’s head?” In Stephen King’s World of Horror Part II, I saw some of these questions presented when they were discussing psychological behavior and horror movies. Scenes from Dementia 13 were shown along with other classic horror films from that era.
Dementia 13 will always be one of my favorites. It has an excellent scary story, a talented cast, and has a great gothic atmosphere. It’s a good film to watch around Halloween or anytime of the year as well. If you have never seen it, go out and buy the DVD, it’s horror at its finest.