Review Index



Itís an article of faith among many film buffs that the top filmmakers of the so-called movie brat generation (Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, etc) all had ďmonumentalĒ debuts. In most instances, however, the opposite is true. Case in point: DEMENTIA 13, the so-so first feature by Francis Ford Coppola. It has some inspired touches, sure, but overall is cluttered and amateurish.

The Package
     DEMENTIA 13 was produced by Roger Corman for American International Pictures in 1963, the same year Francis Ford Coppola assisted in the helming of another Corman project: THE TERROR. As with that film, DEMENTIA 13 was conceived around an old dark castle set, with a hastily written script (which shows) and a none-too-healthy budget (which also shows). As with most of AIPís 1960s productions, it played the drive-in circuit, and was a minor success. (It was also chosen by Stephen King as one the 20 scariest movies of all time in his nonfiction tome DANSE MACABRE, though for what reason Iím not entirely sure.)

The Story
     Louise is an amoral young woman whose husband John suffers a fatal heart attack during a nighttime boat ride. Louise dumps his body in the water and forges a letter from John to his family, claiming heís away on a business trip. She then heads for the Irish castle where Johnís family resides so she can extort money out of them. Louise sees her chance at scamming the family upon learning that Johnís superstitious mother believes the spirit of her drowned child haunts the castle.
     One night Louise dives into a nearby lake, and spots a grave at its watery bottom that appears to be opening. Upon submerging Louise is hacked up by a guy with an axe.
     More people are killed by the unseen assailant, including an inquisitive fisherman whoís beheaded after seeing the eerily preserved body of a little girl, and also Johnís mother, who gets hers upon spotting a similar sight.
     Obviously a derange killer is on the loose, but who is it? Since everyone in the castle is nutty in some way, picking out the culprit is no easy task--and what of the little girlís corpse that keeps turning up? Could it be that the girl has come back to life?

The Direction
     From the start the cheapness of this film is fully evident in the tacky single-source lighting, gritty black and white film stock and cut rate set design. Yet the youthful Francis Ford Coppola imbues the proceedings with many striking elements, such as a transistor radio that falls into a lake and continues sputtering music as it sinks to the bottom, and also the infamous beheading sequence, in which the victimís head is seen rolling down a bank and into a lake. That brings up the issue of gore, which is fairly copious for a film made in 1963.
     In most respects, though, the film misses its mark. The script is a hodge-podge, borrowing liberally from PSYCHO (in having the seeming heroine dispatched after thirty minutes) and cramming in far too many characters and subplots to support the rather sparse narrative.
     Nor do any of the actors make much impression, despite heavyweight cast members like Luana Anders (of NIGHT TIDE and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) and Patrick Magee (of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and MARAT/SADE). But every great director has to start somewhere, and DEMENTIA 13 is at best a stepping stone to bigger and better things--although those of you looking for traces of THE GODFATHER or APOCALYPSE NOW will almost certainly be disappointed.

Vital Statistics

American International Pictures

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
Cinematography: Charles Hannawalt
Editing: Stuart OíBrien, Morton Tubor
Cast: Luana Anders, Patrick Magee, William Campbell, Mary Mitchell, Bart Patton, Barbara Dowling