Studio: Film Chest, Inc. (originally released by American International Pictures)
Length: 75 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Resolution (for Blu-Ray only): 1080p
Film Release Date: September 25, 1963
Disc Release Date: April 26, 2011
Disc Review Date: May 2, 2011
Everyone has to start somewhere. In the case of Francis Ford Coppola, his multi-decade career as a director officially began with this unusual horror film from exploitation legend Roger Corman. Needless to say, it led him to a Hollywood career that started in the transition from Old to New Hollywood—could his 1968 film of the musical Finian’s Rainbow be any bigger a sign of the Generation Gap?—and reached its peak with The Godfather I and II and Apocalypse Now, heights he has yet to reach since then. In this film, he draws from another great director—Alfred Hitchcock—and his horror classic Psycho. The inspiration came to him by the request of producer Roger Corman, who wanted to capitalize off of its success with a quickie horror film.
On a boating trip one evening, Jon Haloran (Peter Read) argues about his mother’s will with his greedy wife Louise (Luana Anders). He tells her that if he predeceases his mother, she will inherit no part of her vast fortune. Right then and there, Jon drops dead from a heart attack. Determined to get her share of the inheritance, Louise drops his body in the river, and then comes up with a plan to convince his mother that Jon is still alive. She writes a fake letter from Jon saying he can’t make it to Castle Haloran in Ireland for the memorial service for his younger sister Kathleen, who drowned in a lake as a small child. Since then her mother, Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne), and her two brothers Richard (William Campbell) and Billy (Bart Patton), have paid homage to her every year since her death with an annual memorial service. Once she realize how superstitious the old woman is, Louise takes some of her toys from the shrine and puts them in the river to make it seem like her ghost took them. There she finds Kathleen’s corpse by a tombstone that says “Forgive Me Kathleen,” swims back up for air, and is promptly hacked to pieces by an unidentified axe murderer (Sound familiar? Ask Marion Crane where you’ve seen that before). After Lady Haloran is attacked, Dr. Caleb, the family doctor, asks questions to find the killer, going to unusual lengths to do so, leading to a twist ending revealing who killed Kathleen.
Written in 3 days and filmed in 9 days with a $40,000 budget (half of it left over from The Young Racers), Dementia 13 is a strange film indeed. The film feels rushed and harried, and the dialogue and performances are quite stilted, but the story is indeed interesting. After shooting had wrapped, Corman had Jack Hill come in and shoot some scenes with a poacher who meets the same fate as Louise; these are there only for the sake of having another axe murder and to pad the film’s running time to what he considered a feature length. These could have easily been cut. A five-minute prologue was shot by yet another director, but it has never been seen on video. This Blu-ray has not located the prologue.
Unlike Gus Van Sant’s rote 1998 recreation of Psycho, Dementia 13 does differentiate itself from the original in a number of ways with a more exotic locale—the budget allowed Coppola to actually shoot in Ireland—and a great deal more blood and gore. And while not as stylish or sophisticated as Hitchcock’s, there are signs of Coppola’s budding visual style in the compositions and atmosphere. This last thing separates the film from many of the cheapie horror films of the time. There are some good ideas and a fairly compelling story; perhaps if he had had more time to polish the script and work with the actors, he would have had a bona fide horror classic. But there’s still some fun to be had.
The box boasts that the film has been “Transferred from original 35mm elements” and has been “Digitally Restored in High Definition.” But the age-old principle of “garbage in, garbage out” applies here, and the elements that Film Chest could obtain on this public domain title couldn't possibly be the original camera negative or a fine-grain protection master; those haven’t been found in years. Although, thankfully, dirt and scratches are gone, the AVC-encoded transfer has been subjected to some major DNR. The image has been scrubbed clean of grain, without a hint of sharpness remaining, if there ever was any to begin with. Fine details begin to disappear in wide-angle shots. The shadows are washed out while the highlights look blown out. Had they merely removed dirt and scratches, the transfer would have been much better, but there are also some issues with the general quality of the compression. I have never seen the film until now, and from what I have been able to find about its history it has never looked or sounded good on home video. The cinematography and distinctive atmosphere are the film’s chief assets, which makes this a shame.
The film gives you two audio choices: The first is a lossy (448 kb/s) 5.1 Surround Sound track and a lossy (192 kb/s) 2.0 mono track. Both are muddy, compressed, and lacking in high-end activity, but the 5.1 track is by far the worse of the two, blatantly spreading the mono track into five speakers and adding an obnoxious delay effect in the attempt to make five channels out of two. This just exacerbates what is already wrong with the source material. Much of the dialogue has been redubbed, some of it sounding like it was done with tin cans and a string.
There is a 1080p trailer for the film that can’t possibly be from the original release, as the titles are obviously recreated in video.
A 1080p before-and-after restoration demo shows clips from the movie demonstrating what kind of a print they had to work with.
Inside the box there’s a postcard containing the movie’s original poster art.
There is also a DVD of the film enclosed with it.
Dementia 13, Francis Ford Coppola’s debut film, is neither his best nor his worst. Instructed by Roger Corman to ride on Psycho’s coattails, it shows an emerging visual style and a compelling story, but is let down by the flat acting and dialogue and the rushed production. Unfortunately, its Blu-Ray debut, while ostensibly better than many of the public domain DVDs, misses the mark, but I still must give Film Chest some credit for at least trying to do what they could with the problematic print they could find. It’s unlikely anyone else could do better unless the original negative or some other pre-print element turns up somewhere. Recommended for fans of low-budget horror and serious scholars of Coppola and Corman who can overlook the technical shortcomings of the disc.