Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 22, 2021)
Francis Ford Coppola made his directorial debut at the young age of 20. For a look at the director’s early years, we go to 1963’s horror tale Dementia 13, his first commercial feature made when Coppola was 24.
John Haloran (Peter Read) dies suddenly and leaves his young wife Louise (Luana Anders) a widow. He comes from a wealthy family but Louise won’t see a penny of his mother’s (Ethne Dunn) wealth if the clan knows John died.
Louise schemes to convince everyone that John went away on business as she attends an annual memorial for Kathleen, John’s sister who died tragically at a young age. While Louise works to secure an inheritance, she and others deal with an axe-wielding maniac who roams the grounds of the estate.
Well, that seems like a twist! Given the main plot, Dementia sounds more like a comedic farce, as one could anticipate shenanigans ala Weekend at Bernie’s as Louise tries to keep her husband “alive”.
Without the homicidal maniac, Dementia could still offer a dark thriller, one that revolves around the oddness of the haunted Haloran family – and that does play a role. I guess Coppola and those involved figured the tale needed something more aggressive and visceral.
When I go into an effort like Dementia, I feel curious to discern if this ‘early days” product shows any signs of the talent that would later become evident. In the case of Dementia, the answer is a resounding “no”, as this dull flick gives us no clues that its creator would someday earn Oscars.
As I understand it, the producers of Dementia commissioned Coppola – who had just worked for them as part of the crew on 1963’s The Young Racers - to write and direct the flick because they still had money left over from Racers. Apparently they wanted Coppola to give them a quickie Psycho knock-off, and he did – sort of.
To be clear, Psycho influences abound in Dementia, especially during its first act. The film’s music, graphics, style and tone all seem heavily reflective of Hitchcock’s 1963 hit during the opening 20 minutes or so.
After that, Dementia leans more toward Gothic horror, and it starts to feel like a copy of Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting. Because both films shot at about the same time – and Dementia made it to theaters first – it seems less obvious that Coppola “borrowed” from Wise than from Hitchcock, but it’s possible he was aware of Wise’s production and that became an influence.
In any case, Dementia largely loses the Psycho feel after the first act – with one massive notable exception that I won’t mention because it hugely enters spoiler territory. To call this scene a rip-off of a major Psycho sequence would demean the word “rip-off”, as Coppola couldn’t have made the theft more obvious if he ran subtitles that said “I stole this from Hitchcock!”
Even if a movie liberally takes from others, that doesn’t mean it can’t still entertain. With Coppola at the helm, even a mix of Psycho and Haunting could possibly succeed.
Alas, Coppola shows little affinity for the material, so he fails to elevate Dementia above “cheap knock-off” territory. The story does come with potential due to the screwed-up nature of the Haloran family, and perhaps if the film more fully explored that domain, it might fare better.
However, Dementia just uses the clan’s problems as window-dressing, for Coppola never digs into the topics in a satisfactory manner. The way the movie awkwardly shoehorns the axe-murderer into the story doesn’t help either, so the whole package comes across as a disjointed mess.
Because it represents Coppola’s feature debut, Dementia 13 merits a look as a curiosity. I feel no desire to ever see it again, though, as it just doesn’t provide a quality movie.
Footnote One: the movie includes the dialogue “especially an American girl - you can tell she's been raised on promises”. Tom Petty’s classic song “American Girl” features the line “she was an American girl/raised on promises”. If Petty didn’t lift that lyric from Dementia 13, it’s an amazing coincidence.
Footnote Two: at one point we see a creepy mechanical toy with four legs and a baby’s head, something that looks like one of the mutant playthings in Toy Story. I feel less certain that the folks at Pixar used Dementia as an influence than I am about “American Girl”, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Toy Story does pay homage to Dementia.