Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill
Starring: Luana Anders, Patrick Magee William Campbell, Bart Patton
Year: 1963
Duration: 75 mins
Country: US
BBFC Certification: 15

Some directors arrive fully formed, leaping onto the cinematic stage with their early movies already exhibiting all the hallmarks of their talent. Yet for every Reservoir Dogs, Badlands or Eraserhead there are other early films from renowned directors that are far removed from their later achievements. Just compare James Cameron’s Piranha Two: The Spawning to The Terminator and it is almost impossible to believe that these were made by the same person.

The same observation can be made between Dementia 13, an early film from New Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola and the movies that came in it’s wake, including one little film called The Godfather, that is regularly cited as one of the greatest movies ever made. Not that you would suspect such explosive talent to be flowing through the veins of ‘Francis Coppola’, the young, 21 year old director of this Sixties black and white shocker newly released on Blu Ray by Vestron Films. Be under no illusion here; if you love The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation or Apocalypse Now (hell, even Bram Stoker’s Dracula!) then Dementia 13 may come as a Piranha Two style shock.

In fact, the story behind the film may actually be more interesting than it’s actual plot. In the early sixties, Coppola, despite his young age, had already made a number of films (including the bizarre, soft porn flick The Bellboy and the Playgirls) and was earning a living in-between projects working for the the single man low budget movie production factory that was Roger Corman.

After wrapping on Corman’s latest film The Young Racer (that had been shot in Ireland) the entrepreneurial director and producer (never one to let a film making opportunity pass him by) thought that it would be a shame to let all the film equipment, sets and crew to go to waste before they went home, so he asked if any members of the crew had a decent idea for a movie. Coppola, who had been expecting this opportunity, eagerly offered his idea for Dementia 13. Corman, approving of its Psycho aping plot and exploitation leanings, gave Coppola the green light.

It is not hard to see why Corman approved of Coppola’s pitch. Dementia 13, with it’s gothic overtones of dark family secrets, murder, mystery and paranoia, fitted right into the wheelhouse of many early sixties films that were still attempting to ride the waves of Hitchcock’s groundbreaking Psycho. Indeed, one could argue that Coppola was being extremely canny in his choice of subject matter. Dementia 13 may have been written and made by the director of The Godfather, but it feels, in tone and plot, far more like a Corman film than anything else; the operatic spectacle that Coppola became renowned for is absolutely nowhere to be found here.

The plot itself is incredibly derivative, even by the standards of the time in which it was made. Fusing the traits and plot devices seen in many Hammer Horrors, as well as Corman’s own output, Dementia 13 sees recently widowed Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) hiding the fact of her husband’s death in order to ensure she receives her share of a hefty inherence from Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne), her ailing mother in law. Yet when she arrives on the Haloran estate in Ireland, she gets drawn into a web of intrigue and mystery surrounding the death of a young child from years earlier. Hoping to exploit her mother in law’s guilt and trauma, Louise embarks upon a Machiavellian plot of her own, only to find out that a dangerous lunatic is stalking the castle, threatening to destroy all of her carefully laid plans…

To be fair, Dementia 13 starts of reasonably well. The young Coppola establishes a decent air of mystery and suspense as Louise arrives at the family castle and begins to integrate herself with the Haloran family. Yet after a Psycho-lite twist about a quarter of the way through, Dementia 13 slowly but surely goes off the rails, descending into a bit of a muddy, confusing and convoluted mess that even the great Patrick Magee cannot save, despite his best efforts to dominate the screen with his brilliant eccentricity whenever he is able.

The fault here lies predominately with the screenplay. Coppola was literarily writing the script throughout the shoot and it unfortunately shows. Yet, despite the film’s flaws, it is still abundantly clear that Dementia 13 isn’t the work of a talentless amateur. It is actually very well shot, with Coppola consistently evoking atmosphere and suspense through the lighting and angles, while the performances he gets out of the cast are a cut above many similar films of this ilk.

All this can’t save Dementia 13, however. Despite a promising opening, it devolves into an unimaginative genre rip-off that dulls with a convoluted and underdeveloped plot. As an isolated film, it would have been quickly forgotten. Yet as an opening salvo from one of the most admired directors of American cinema, it remains a fascinating curio that shows, like a certain James Cameron, just because you don’t hit the ground running doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to soar.  

Dementia 13 has been released on Blu Ray by Vestron Films. The picture quality on the disc is very impressive, especially considering the film’s limited budget. Deep blacks and a beautifully sharp picture means that Dementia 13 looks fantastic on this new Blu Ray. Sound is likewise clear and sharp.

There are only a few extras on the disc, which are as follows: 

Introduction by Francis Ford Coppola
Audio Commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola
Prologue (Dementia 13 Test)

Introduction by Francis Ford Coppola: Coppola introduces the film in a very short piece to camera. Worth watching once, but as this is barely a minute long, there isn’t much of substance here apart from Coppola revealing that what we are going to watch is a ‘director’s cut’ with some scenes now fully restored.

Audio Commentary: Anyone who has listened to any of Coppola’s commentaries before know that he is always great to listen to; his commentary for Dementia 13 is no different. He offers great background detail on the film, discussing how they worked around the low budget and providing interesting information about the actors (although he frustratingly offers no information about how this director’s cut differs from other versions). Coppola also offers insight and discussion of the plot, along with pointing out the times he tried to copy Hitchcock. Despite the film’s flaws, it is clear that Coppola still has great affection for Dementia 13 (and a certain old car!) making this commentary yet another great listen.

Prologue (Dementia 13 Test): This is one of those tongue in cheek film tie ins that seems to have taken a leaf out of William Castle’s book. Here, a ‘psychologist’ offers the audience to take the ‘Dementia 13 Test’. Fun while you watch it, this is a nice addition to the disc.

Dementia 13
3.0Overall Score
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