‘Makes Psycho look like a Sunday school picnic’
The film was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Twixt) and produced by Roger Corman. Although Coppola had been involved in at least two nudie films previously, Dementia 13 served as his first mainstream, “legitimate,” directorial effort. It was released in the fall of 1963 on a double-bill with Corman’s X.
Corman offered Coppola the chance to direct a low-budget horror film in Ireland with funds left over from Corman’s recently completed The Young Racers, on which Coppola had worked as a sound technician. The producer wanted a cheap Psycho copy, complete with gothic atmosphere and brutal killings, and Coppola quickly wrote a screenplay in accordance with Corman’s requirements.
Although he was given total directorial freedom during production, Coppola found himself fighting with Corman after the film was completed. The producer declared the movie unreleasable and demanded several changes be made. Corman eventually brought in another director, Jack Hill, to film additional sequences.
Gary Kurtz, one of Corman’s assistants at the time, recalled, “So we shot this stupid prologue that had nothing to do with the rest of the film. It was some guy who was supposed to be a psychiatrist, sitting in his office and giving the audience a test to see if they were mentally fit to see the picture. The film was actually released with that prologue.”
The prologue was directed by Monte Hellman. This William Castle-style gimmick also included a “D-13 Test” handout given to theatre patrons that was ostensibly devised by a “medical expert” to weed out psychologically unfit people from viewing the film. The test consisted of such questions as “The most effective way of settling a dispute is with one quick stroke of an axe to your adversary’s head?” and “Have you ever been hospitalized in a locked mental ward, sanitarium, rest home or other facility for the treatment of mental illness?”, with Yes or No as the only possible answers.
The Roan Group released a laserdisc and DVD of the film, both of which included an audio commentary by Campbell. The DVD also featured the written version of the “D-13 Test” in digital form as an extra. However, the filmed five-minute prologue featuring the test has not been included on any of the numerous available home video versions of the title. On April 26, 2011 the film was released in the US on Blu-ray.
One night, while out boating in the middle of a lake, John Haloran and his young wife Louise argue about his rich mother’s will. Louise is upset that everything is currently designated to go to charity in the name of “a mysterious Kathleen.” John tells Louise that if he dies before his mother does, she will be entitled to none of the inheritance. He then promptly drops dead from a massive heart attack.
Thinking quickly, the scheming Louise throws the fresh corpse over the side of the boat, where he comes to rest at the bottom of the lake. Her plan is to pretend that he is still alive, in order to ingratiate her way back into the will. She types up a letter to Lady Haloran, inviting herself to the family’s Irish castle while her husband is “away on business”.
Upon arrival, she immediately notices that things are a little strange in the castle. She observes John’s two brothers, Billy and Richard taking part in a bizarre ceremony with their mother as part of a yearly ritualistic tribute to their youngest sister, Kathleen, who died many years before in a freak drowning accident. Lady Haloran still mourns for her, and during this year’s ceremony, she faints dead away. As Louise helps her into the house, her mother-in-law tells her that she fainted because one of the flowers she had thrown had died as it touched Kathleen’s grave…
“Under the stolid direction of Francis Coppola, who also wrote the script, the picture stresses gore rather than atmosphere, and all but buries a fairly workable plot.” The New York Times
“The location (an Irish castle) is used imaginatively, the Gothic atmosphere is suitably potent, and there’s a wonderfully sharp cameo from Patrick Magee…” Tom Raynes, Time Out Film Guide
“A skilful piece of small-scale horror, filmed in Ireland which showed Coppola’s skill as a director (before he succumbed to the inflation of big budgets and big subjects) and Corman’s ability to pick embryo talent.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook
“a remarkably confident and proficient thriller. Several of its components hint at the creativity that was still to come from Coppola, and the finished product is a testament to his ingenuity…” John Charles, Video Watchdog
“Coppola… works fast and creative in Dementia 13, making memorable, shocking little sequences out of the killings and the implied haunting, using his locations well and highlighting unexpected eeriness like a transistor radio burbling distorted pop music as it sinks into a lake along with a just-murdered corpse.” Kim Newman
“…Coppola successfully uses cinematic chiaroscuro, delayed-response pacing, stark sound dubs, and cryptic dialogue to create an alluring atmosphere of weirdness and fear […] For me, the highlight was the description of the “who is crazy” nightmare.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
“The horror story is heavily red-herringed and none too credible, and the film doesn’t escape looking a bit of a quickie. But the director, Francis Coppola, has confidently assembled the film and given it a sharp sense of atmosphere.” Films and Filming
Cast and characters:
- William Campbell as Richard Haloran
- Luana Anders as Louise Haloran
- Patrick Magee as Dr. Justin Caleb
- Bart Patton as Billy Haloran
- Mary Mitchell as Kane
- Eithne Dunne as Lady Haloran
- Peter Read as John Haloran
- Karl Schnazer as Simon, the poacher
- Ron Perry as Arthur
- Derry O’Donovan as Lillian, the maid
- Barbara Dowling as Kathleen Haloran
Howth Castle, Howth, County Dublin, Ireland