Written and directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Luana Anders, William Campbell, Eithne Dunne, Peter Read & Patrick Magee
Reviewed by: Brett H.
ďCastle Haloran is a bit perplexing. A very strange place, really. Old and musty, the kind of place youíd expect a ghost to like to wander around in.Ē
Having been involved with some of the premiere films of all time, Iíve always wanted to check out the first legitimate feature debut of Francis Ford Coppola. Made with leftover dollars from a Roger Corman cheapie (which gives us a pretty good idea of its budget), Dementia 13 has until now been only available on public domain versions that likely wouldnít do the film justice. There are certain, sillier b-flicks, The Devil Bat for instance, that donít necessarily require quality transfers to enjoy, and itís true that at times the washed out, speckled prints add a distinguishable charm that nostalgic horror fans have both lamented and cherished throughout the years. After enjoying White Zombie considerably in a shoddy Platinum setís print (Iíve referred to the film as the best 65 some odd cents Iíve ever spent), I figured perhaps the last chunk of gold in the pan left unseen in my adventures of the stingy kind may well be Dementia 13. Thanks to Virgil Films, my public domain double feature with The Killer Shrews will remain in its shrinkwrap as Dementia 13 hits Blu-rayÖ yes, Blu-ray with a newly restored, widescreen transfer!
Coming to grips with the untimely death of youngest daughter/sibling Kathleen has taken a serious mental toll on the entire Haloran family. Unable to move on with their lives thanks to their broken-hearted motherís (Eithne Dunne) obsession with her lost little angel, the brothers are constantly having to face the same terrible memories that have plagued them for almost a decade. Making certain to keep Kathleen alive even once she herself can no longer do so, the matriarch has designated in her will to have a big chunk of funds being donated to charity in Kathleenís name. This doesnít bode well with Louise (Luana Anders), the gold-digging wife of John Haloran (Peter Read) who has been informed that she wonít be in the will at all if he dies before his mother. Sure enough, olí John throws a heart attack before being dumped in the river by the greedy woman who then plans to integrate herself into the nutty family and keep Johnís death a secret so she may still get a piece of the pie.
Francis Ford Coppola shows directorial stability from the get-go, though no one could possibly have predicted the unknown who made this Psycho derivation would go onto direct some of the biggest epics in history, not to mention play a pivotal role in preserving many works of art. Dementia 13 is a psychotic, noirish slasher with a rushed screenplay that broke a lot of violence barriers back in 1963. If not for the stomach churning Blood Feast preceding it by a couple months, the chilling, gory axe murders may have been seen as more impacting. Refreshing for a film thatíd be just another one of hundreds if not for the now-iconic name attached to it, Dementia 13 is nonetheless a good example of a public domain horror film that just doesnít sit right when shoved on DVDs alongside crud like The Devilís Hand. Luckily, it wonít be in that category any longer with the Blu-ray release.
The Halorans arenít outright deranged (each member has their moments, of course), but the filmís tone is very mysterious, unnerving and disturbing. The walls of their castle stand amidst decades, perhaps centuries of instability and unshakable memories. Not just from the drowning death of Kathleen at such a tender age, but from other memories passed on, like when one brotherís room is in a lonely, far-off part of the castle just shy of the spot where a family member once broke his neck. The family is so depressed and mentally stunned that it almost makes the viewer believe that the walls have never seen a happy day. They have; flashbacks to Kathleen when she was alive are pleasing since the viewer knows just how much these people all cared about her. Juxtaposed against their madness with a creepy-childlike score, what we interpret as happy memories reveal something more sinister. Coppolaís excellent direction in scenes forerunning to the modern slasher are perhaps the filmís greatest accomplishments. The axe murders are pretty brutal and the at times pastel black and white photography renders them all the more effective. Theyíre not on Carpís Halloween level, but theyíre not too far down.
If you want to experience Dementia 13, there is no better way than the HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray/DVD combo. Available at a budget-friendly price tag, the 16 x 9 video quality is good with all major and minor scratches and blemishes cleared out in the restoration process, but the filmís focus is very soft and concealing, so the extra definition doesnít stick out like it has in other films. Audio is iffy at best, being showcased in similar 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. A trailer, before/after restoration demo and a nifty little postcard round out the package. Itís unfortunate that Coppola didnít have more time to smooth out the rough edges in Dementia 13ís script, it is a genuinely engaging and weird, well-photographed little horror film. At the price point of around $10, even those that have it on a public domain disc should look into checking it out in widescreen. Go a little crazy and embrace the Dementia... Rent it!
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