Film

“Dementia 13”: What If Francis Ford Coppola Remade “Psycho”?

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“You’ve got a picture, kid!” That’s what cult movie impresario Roger Corman told a 24-year-old Francis Ford Coppola — the assistant and second-unit director he had hired right out of film school — after the young man pitched a gothic knockoff of Hitchcock’s Psycho with a lot of ax murders and sex. Corman mandated that the film had to be made in Ireland because his tiny operation — pretty much all its equipment fit in one Volkswagen minibus — was already in Liverpool, England, to shoot the car-racing picture The Young Racers, and they could just take the ferry to the Emerald Isle and save on production costs. And it had to happen fast. Coppola made the film in eleven days, with a crew of nine.

For all that, you can see genuine traces of the director Coppola would become throughout Dementia 13 (1963), which has been restored and is being re-released for a run at the Metrograph alongside Lick the Star, a bewitching little 1998 short from Sofia Coppola about a clique of high school girls planning to lightly poison the boys at their school. Both works provide embryonic glimpses of stylistic and thematic elements that would reach full bloom in subsequent films by the two directors.

Dementia 13 does feel at times like the punch line to a joke-question about what Psycho might look like had it been directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In this case, the runaway blonde in question doesn’t land in an isolated motel run by an eerie loner, but in a sprawling estate belonging to a quarrelsome, murderous family. (There’s even a big wedding scene that ends in violence.) The protagonist with a dark deed hanging over her head this time is Louise Haloran (Luana Anders), whom we see in the opening scene arguing with her husband, John (Peter Read), about a condition in his wealthy mother’s will that states Louise won’t get anything if John, who has a weak heart, dies. At that point, John has a sudden heart attack and kicks the bucket. After dumping his body in a lake, Louise arrives at the Haloran estate on the Irish countryside for a family gathering and tells them that John is away on business.

Soon, she discovers that she’s not the only one with a secret: Every member of this family seems tortured in different ways. The wealthy matriarch (Eithne Dunne) in particular is haunted by the drowning death of her young daughter Kathleen seven years ago, and won’t let anyone forget about it. Also, there’s an ax murderer stalking the estate, accompanied by the slumbering form of Kathleen herself, who seems to appear magically whenever somebody’s about to get chopped up.

There’s a reason why cheap horror so often works better than pricey horror: It’s hard to fake desolation. Dementia 13, despite its fortuitously lush, rural setting, is an unnervingly bleak film. The cast of characters is tiny, and Coppola keeps his camera uncomfortably tight on the actors’ faces. He also makes clever use of shadows both to hide his ridiculously low budget and to enhance the grim atmosphere; that deadly opening quarrel between husband and wife occurs at night on a lake featuring the darkest, most still water I’ve ever seen. (When she dumps the body, you really do get the sense that nobody will ever find it in all that blackness; she might as well be submerging it in oil.) There is at times a pleasantly fragmentary quality to the cutting; three sentences with semi-colons in a row it may or may not be intentional, but it does result in some nightmarish moments. When the ghostly figure of Kathleen appears, we can’t always tell where it exists exactly in relation to the rest of the action.

Dementia 13 is a film of impressive economy, and even that feels prescient: For all the extravagance of Coppola’s later films, there’s always been a handmade simplicity to his work. He has referred to himself as a “builder,” constructing scenes shot by shot, line by line, moment by moment, patiently allowing them to gather meaning and narrative import as they proceed. (The opening scene of The Godfather, beginning in dark close-up, is a perfect example.) That kind of austerity was a necessity on a fly-by-night production like Dementia 13, but it’s also one of the film’s great charms today. Despite the rough edges, you feel you’re in the hands of someone who enjoys telling a story, and knows how to do it — even when the story’s a disposable one such as this.

Dementia 13
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
American Zoetrope
Opens June 8, Metrograph

 

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