Review of the film “Dementia 13”: the American nightmare by Francis Coppola
years 1963 Dementia 13 – a story of fear, deception and murderous greed – remains relevant today.
As America enters the tenth month of its Walpurgisnacht, the first film by Francis Coppola, Dementia 13, is back to remind us of age-old fears – and the forgotten pragmatic reason. Coppola’s directorial debut in 1963 was originally released on the lower half of a double bill with X: The man with the X-ray eyes, as one of Roger Corman’s spooky American international cheapies.
As The Godfather, the gangster movie that would certify Coppola as a world-class film artist a decade later, Dementia 13 also uses genre-film conventions. But while the emotional depths of this exploitation film are obscured by low-budget shortcuts and discount psychologization, the generic commonplaces are made evocative by young Coppola’s already evident flair. (The strange shot of a mechanical doll crawling on Citizen Kane puzzle pieces show true film student inspiration.)
Beginning with the mysteries of a mansion in Ireland where the fortune of the American Haloran family carries a dark secret and hints at underhand individual motives, Coppola provided a companion script that matched producer Corman’s business interest in ready-made horror. Their exploitation of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James creates undeniable cultural echoes.
As The Godfather was taken as a metaphor for corporate capitalism, Dementia 13The story of fear and greed evokes manic power struggles in America’s longest war – the ongoing class war now evident in our divided cultural policy. Coppola’s opening murder scene dates back to Dreiser’s An American tragedy and walks towards Godard Weekend – references that collate the books of corruption in the life of the middle class in the twentieth century.
Dementia 13 distills that discontent into what is essentially a family drama – Coppola’s favorite theme, found in Stone Gardens, Tucker, boys movies The foreigners and Rumblefish, as well as in several of his late-career indies, including Tetro and the emotional Twix. Now in retrospect we can reflect Dementia 13 for Coppola’s early and instinctive examination of the failures, missed obligations and disappointments that the family unit has in common with our disintegrating national structure. Each of the Haloran brothers must face the specter of “inherited talent” (just like the Corleone brothers), and each is abusing their heritage, as if it does not meet an ideal. One character is described with the comment “An American. . . You can say [he’s] been raised on promises.
It is no exaggeration to regard this era of calculus and reparations as the era of dementia. Finally, the lingering fears of Poe and Hawthorne (The fall of House Usher, the house of the seven gables) seem to have returned to haunt us in a wide-eyed monstrosity that seems almost satirical. Perhaps it will seem so to future historians.
Film historians will note that the title Dementia 13 is a movie industry prank, borrowed from the exploitation movie huckster made famous by William Castle. A short quiz on the movie “D-13” tested whether the audience was psychologically fit to watch the movie. It’s a joke about Americans’ ability to fool carnival barkers, no different from the common sense of a politician (or Coppola’s sly snaps of female star Luana Anders in times of distress and danger). Coppola didn’t shoot the test (Monte Hellman did), and this new Blu-ray restore from Dementia 13 of Lionsgate / Vestron separates it from the film itself.
Coppola’s continued mission to recut, revise, and re-edit his previous films suggests a dissatisfaction that could either be a personal eccentricity or related to the dissatisfaction that characterizes our current Walpurgisnacht. In this cutout of Dementia 13 – a politician looks like this is a ‘reset’ – Coppola also reminds us of the standards of apprehension and suspicion that no longer seem to apply during this time of bold lying. Dementia 13 never developed a cult because it falls short of the psychological compulsion that the Godfather extracted films. Yet this story of a family of frustrated and berserk artists contains its own subconscious metaphor of social advancement and control that needs to be explained today.
Even hackneyed horror films confront us to extremes, and a talented commercial artist like Coppola can remind us of our limits in times of stress.