Dementia 13 - Review
S P Oldham
I just watched another of the films listed in Wednesday Lee Friday’s ’15 Black and White Horror Movies That Are Scary as Hell,’ posted on ScreenRant on 2oth August 2016. Find it here: https://screenrant.com/scariest-black-and-white-horror-movies-ever-all-time/
Today’s offering was Dementia 13, the 1963 version starring Luana Anders, Patrick Magee and William Campbell, and was I believe the first film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
It opens with an intriguing setting – a man and woman about to board a rowing boat at night, rock and roll music playing on the radio. In this scene we learn who the couple are, what the woman’s motives might be and how the story is to begin, for us the viewer that is. Truth be told, we are stepping into a story that has been some years in the making…
The story centres around the tragic death of Kathleen, the younger sister to older brothers Richard and Billy. Kathleen drowned in the pond at the front of Halloran Castle several years ago. Consequently, their mother has suffered depression and an all-consuming guilt ever since, looking for people to blame for the girl’s death. The older brother Richard works with iron. It is implied that he has issues with anger early on in the film. Likewise, the younger brother Billy is forced to occupy a bedroom in a remote, supposedly haunted part of the castle. He has suffered strange and frightening nightmares since his sibling’s death.
Louise is possibly the most interesting character of them all, yet she is not in the film for long (she is probably the best actor, too.) Louise is one of the characters in the boat in the opening scene. The man is her husband, John. We learn from the outset that John has a heart defect and that he is aware his wife only wants him for his money. He points out that if anything happens to him, Louise gets nothing. We learn that the mother has penned a 'ridiculous will' which Louise means to persuade her to change. Right on cue, John keels over and dies of a heart attack. Louise, being the devious money grabber she is, tips him out of the boat along with the radio (she remarks that the music he is playing is ‘terrible’ beforehand,) because she knows he is right about her getting nothing if he is gone. Once back at the castle, she pens a note, forging his signature, explaining his disappearance as a sudden business trip. She then tries to ingratiate herself with mother, the cold, distant matriarch of the house. Once she learns the story of Kathleen, she assures the mother that the dead child will ;give her a sign,' one which she will share, in order to gain the older woman’s confidence. To add credence to her ‘powers’ she sets out to steal some of the dead child’s toys as proof of her communication with her.
I enjoyed the scene where Louise breaks into the girl's bedroom, presumably left as it was when she died. We see Louise is observed breaking in, though she doesn’t know she is being watched. These days, we are used to the idea of the trope whereby children’s toys are creepy and scary. This scene uses that devise shamelessly, but I have to say, it works. Perhaps it wasn’t as hackneyed then as it is now. There was one thing that jarred with me. The crawling wind-up doll made me jump (yes I know I just called it ‘hackneyed’ but I really wasn’t expecting it) yet it had no effect on Louise whatsoever. She barely even acknowledged it had moved. I'm sorry but whether you believed in ghosts or not, I think anyone would have jumped at this sudden and unexpected movement in the circumstances. But even so, this fairly brief scene is quite suspenseful. I didn’t fully understand why she tied ropes to the toys and then dived into the pool with them. They later bob to the surface, though she is no longer around to see it, so perhaps that was the plan. Maybe she meant them to surface in full view of the family, especially the mother, as one of these 'signs.' I wondered if she meant to retrieve them one at a time to add weight to the lies she planned to tell the mother. They would have been dripping wet from the pond, and the child drowned, after all…
The scene where Louise is attacked at the pool, whilst not at all graphic beyond a faceless man swinging an axe repeatedly, (the number and ferocity of blows she supposedly sustained would have resulted in far more than the few trails of blood down her face we are shown) together with a later scene involving a sudden but brief decapitation, and later still, a body hanging in an outhouse, makes this, of all the films on the list, the nearest to true horror that any of them come, with the possible exception of Night of the Living Dead.
I reiterate here that we must bear in mind that all of these films are of their time. None of them would stand up as horror in today’s modern, graphic sense. That being understood, Dementia 13 can be more properly referred to as ‘horror’ than most of the others, in my view. I had been expecting the film to continue in its ‘spooky,’ ghost-story vein, so these elements of violent horror surprised me when they occurred.
The film is meant to be mysterious and intriguing, but at points I simply found it confusing. All is eventually explained of course, though not as fully nor as effectively as I would have liked. Doctor Caleb’s final action, the one which ends the film, seems unnecessary to me. He viciously swings and embeds an axe into the face of the wax doll made in the likeness of the dead child, Kathleen. A final act of ‘violence’ meant to put an end to the sinister depression that hung over the house and the family, it seemed gratuitous to me (not graphically so, just that it was needless and overly dramatic.He had just shot and killed Billy. Mutilating the doll was perhaps a very visual end to it all.
We are used to Coppola’s slick style these days. If you are expecting that from this film, you will be disappointed. I still found it enjoyable in a sense – it has a genuinely unsettling aspect – but if I am honest, I will say that after a promising start, this film became confusing, mildly annoying and then became a somewhat predictable story-line about guilt, grief, loss and insanity.
A lot of things don’t add up here. What was the plan with the stolen toys? Why did she scream when she saw the headstone? (Was that a hand or just some underwater plant? If it was a hand (or a head) then I understand the scream. Otherwise not.) How did the doctor know there were three wheels to empty the pond and why did he have the authority to order it drained? How did Billy have the means to make such a detailed wax doll? Had his mother seen it before she entered the play house? If not, why did she not react to it with more shock? If she had seen it before. why did Billy try to attack her, if she was meant to see it? Why is there barely even a mention of the missing brother John after the early part of the film? Obviously, these are all points we are meant to overlook in order to allow the film to move along, but they niggled me. Oh, and given that it is supposedly set in Ireland, how come there wasn’t an Irish accent to be heard? (A bit tongue in cheek, that one.)
Scary as hell? No, but it definitely has scary elements and one or two moments which would have no doubt qualified as ‘jump scares’ at the time. Worth the watch to see the result of Coppola’s early work, and if you are prepared to take it with a pinch of salt it is a good, spooky film.
I have three films left on this list. I intend to complete my self-imposed challenge to watch and review all fifteen of them.by Christmas, so keep coming back for more and feel free to add your own opinions!