Historically, debut films are often the grounds in which a director starts working on their style, but are often hamstrung by the producers, or the studio who are wary of giving too much control to the first-time director. While this is not as prevalent today, as often a filmmaker’s first film is an independent effort, where they have complete control over everything (often taking years to piece their work together), it was not so for previous generations of director. Take Francis Ford Coppola as an example, while you probably know him as the director of films like “The Godfather” or “Apocalypse Now” he started with a tiny B-Movie in 1963 called “Dementia 13” (also know in some countries as “The Haunted and the Hunted”).
Reportedly made for less than 50,000 dollars, “Dementia 13” is a Roger Corman produced film which was made to be something of a cheap knockoff of Alfred Hitchcock’s smash hit “Psycho”. Coppola, who was working as an assistant to Corman on “The Young Racers” (1963), an instantly forgettable film about Grand Prix racing, wrote the script for “Dementia 13” and showed it to Corman, convincing him to let Coppola direct his first feature film, using the location, (most of the) cast and the crew from “The Young Racers” to make his thriller quickly and cheaply.
“Dementia 13” is the story of the Haloran family who have all returned to their ancestral castle in Ireland for the anniversary of the death of the youngest child, Kathleen (Barbara Dowling), who drowned in a pond on the castle grounds, and the axe murderer who is attacking and killing some of the attendees. The tension of the film is found in the audience trying to figure out who out of the small cast of characters is the murderer. The atmosphere is effectively gothic, and the stark black and white film used helps to add a real sense of foreboding and gloom to the film. While this is less a choice, and more a use of the cheapest film stock available, it does work in favour of the film, rather than to its’ detriment.
The plot is a fairly simple for a slow-burning thriller: the eldest Haloran sibling, John Haloran (Peter Read) and his scheming American wife Louise (Luana Anders) start in a rowboat on a lake (not the pond) arguing over how the wealthy mother Haloran (Eithne Dunn) is leaving the family’s wealth to charity in Kathleen’s name, instead of leaving it to them. John says something to the effect of “if I die, you can get the money” and then he dies of a massive heart attack. Louise lovingly rolls John’s corpse into the lake, so Louise can still scheme toward getting money for herself.
We then meet the other Haloran’s, and essentially our two choices as to who the murderer is: the middle-son Richard (William Campbell), who followed in his late fathers’ footsteps, becoming a sculptor, and his American fiancé Kane (Mary Mitchel), who is there to confuse the audience about whether Richard is the axe murderer or not. There is also Billy (Bart Patton), the youngest of the Haloran brothers, who is…sad? He has a car and nightmares. As to what he actually does outside of that is anyone’s guess, and while to say more would give plot away, if you are someone who has seen any thriller, particularly the aforementioned “Psycho”, based on this description you already have a pretty good idea of how this is going to turn out.
The other characters are largely superficial, with the Lady Haloran being obsessed over the death of Kathleen, her Doctor (Patrick McGee) annoying Kane in suggesting that her fiancé is the killer and then just solving the mystery at a wedding that happens, because, um, weddings are neat. There is also a Poacher (Karl Schnazer) who completely alters the tone of the film in the two scenes he is in, adding some odd, poorly executed comic relief, and it is easy to suggest that he was only added into the film in order to give the axe murderer someone else to kill (spoilers, but let us be fair, he is axe fodder and you know that from the very first second you see him). It is actually said that Corman was unhappy with the original cut of “Dementia 13” and brought Jack Hill in to add the poacher scenes in, which would explain why they look and feel completely different than everything else in the film. Thankfully, the version of “Dementia 13” I was able to see (and which you are most likely to be able to track down) did not have the theatrical ‘prologue’ which Corman added (calling the original 75 minute cut of the film too short) involving a psychiatrist giving the audience a ‘test’ to see if they are fit to see the film. This pointless gimmick seems to be gone from most available versions now, but we are still stuck with two scenes that just stop Coppola’s film dead.
“Dementia 13” is a film which is worth seeing for the Francis Ford Coppola fan: you will see hints and flashes of what the director would become. While the story is nothing to write home about, it does hold the attention for its short duration and the performances are acceptable across the board. If you have seen a lot of thrillers, or indeed are just paying attention, you will figure out the ending of the film very quickly, but seeing the birth of a brilliant director is surely worth the effort.
If you are not interested in “Dementia 13” from a film history standpoint, or are not a fan of really cheap, indie b-movies, you can probably skip this, just know that you will be hard pressed to find a 75 minute slow-burning B-thriller as effective as this one.