Sure, it’s a quickly made post-Psycho cash-in with the added shock value of a character getting decapitated on screen (a rather nifty cheap effect if you’ve never seen this flick before), but thanks to a creepier tone and some nicely tense lensing by a young director named Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 manages to be a pretty decent little horror film.
Granted, if you pay enough attention past making popcorn and turning your brain off to watch this one, much of the script and more of the dialogue make about as much sense as a cat driving an oil tanker full of Tater Tots down a freeway on the way to the mall. But on its own merits, it’s a fine directorial debut brought in on a shoestring by the director and enhanced by producer Roger Corman to include the aforementioned head removal and some other elements he thought would punch things up a a bit more…
He really didn’t need to go to that trouble at all, as Coppola’s oddball tale has a number of unsettling scenes and some really nice shots that add an overall sense of something about to happen even when nothing takes place. Yes, the parallels to Hitchcock’s classic are easy to spot, but the film goes off a deeper end from the opening sequence (literally and figuratively) and unlike, William Castle’s Homicidal and later, Strait-Jacket, you don’t get in-theater gimmickry or Joan Crawford to yank in the fright fans. Coppola makes the opening sequence memorable with a simple portable radio sinking into the water right after a fresh corpse, there’s a nice surprise murder of a main character and the person who cracks the case may be a bit of a nut himself.
The film plays it a bit strange (OK, a LOT strange) because nearly every character is suspect or unlikable in one way or another. While you may guess who the killer is simply by the process of elimination, it’s a fun enough (and short enough) ride that you’ll get a few nice jumps when the director does a few very nice camera shots. Damn you cymbal-playing toy monkey! Yes, ladies and gentlemen… there’s one in this movie that actually game me nightmares for a few days the first time I saw this move and even today, if I see one in some old magazine or in another film, I get a little chill like the one I’m feeling now. I’ll bet if you happen to have one of those things in your house, it’s going right into the trash bin before this movie is over. Hey… who the hell left that window open?
Anyway, the cast is made up of mostly unknowns save for Patrick Magee as the doctor/detective who’s not exactly Mr. Bedside Manner 1963 and William Campbell as one of the unbalanced Haloran clan. The film also has a nice and unsettling score that’s partially atonal AND overuses a harpsichord (meaning it works just fine for the film), but the Letraset main titles almost kill the experience because they look so cheap. Fortunately, the surreal animation behind those titles will freak you out and make you forgive the budget lettering solution. I guess you can only stretch $20,000 or so only so far. Still, that opening animation is pretty well done and memorably sets up what’s to some.
As you can see, the entire film is above (it’s apparently been in the public domain for a while), so you don’t need to chase it down on Netflix or overpriced eBay DVD unless you want to see it in a better resolution or from a few more feet away on your old TV with the “rabbit ears” style antenna. Which, by the way, WON’T make it any better… but it might put you a little bit closer to hiding under the couch… head first, as you don’t want to lose it, now. Of course, a few inches off that butt poking out from under that sofa might keep you from asking friends if those jeans make it look too big all the damn time…
(*Yeah, yeah – it’s not a “weekend”, but today IS a holiday, folks. OK, this was supposed to go up Sunday, but I got sidetracked with some other stuff.)