Coppola: Dementia 13 (1963)

In effect, Dementia 13 was Francis Ford Coppola’s first film as a director. While his name had been attached to two earlier exploitation films, Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, he hadn’t fully directed either, both of which also used footage from other films. Even Dementia 13 doesn’t quite feel like a Coppola film yet, partly because it contains a prologue, which wasn’t directed by Coppola, which presented the audience with thirteen criteria for madness, and which gives the film its name. Since this prologue isn’t included in most versions available today, the original title of The Haunted and The Hunted is perhaps more appropriate for the film, which was produced by Roger Corman with money left over from his own film The Young Racers, a Formula One drama also released in 1963. Apparently, Corman asked Coppola for a film that would tap into the Psycho market, and the film has often been received as a derivative or second-rate version of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Yet while Coppola might not have been at the level of Hitchcock in this early stage in his career, Dementia 13 often plays as an extension of Psycho more than a straight copy, a stepping-stone in the direction of the slasher films that would flourish in the 1970s.

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The opening parts of the film are more Corman than Coppola, as we’re introduced to a fairly familiar Gothic setup – an Irish castle, inhabited by a family with mysterious secrets. We’re introduced to this family via Louise Haloran, plyed by Luana Anders, a young American woman who has just married John Haloran, one of the men who lives in the castle. In an eerie opening scene, Louise and John take a boat ride together, where he reveals that his mother, Lady Haloran, played by Eithne Dunne, will never agree to leave her estate to Louise if something happens to John. Abruptly, John has a heart attack, and Louise conceals his body beneath the water, hoping that she can prevail upon Lady Halaron, as well as her other two sons, Richard (William Campbell) and Billy (Bart Patton), to view her as the heir to John’s fortune by the time that his body is discovered. Meanwhile, the Halorans are haunted by the death of their younger sister Kathleen, which happened seven years before in mysterious circumstances. Louise quickly learns that the best way to get Lady Haloran onside is to make her feel that Kathleen is signalling, from beyond the grave, that she should be the rightful heir to John’s money. A cat-and-mouse game ensues in which Louise tries to gaslight Lady Haloran into believing in Kathleen’s supernatural presence, even as Kathleen’s killer emerges once more to resume the killing spree that he or she began seven years ago.

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Throughout these early scenes, Coppola seems to be drawing upon Rebecca as much as Psycho, emphasising the strangeness of Ireland, and by extension the British Isles, as it is seen through American eyes. Louise quickly finds out that Lady Haloran has held a ceremony every year since Kathleen died, but has had to continually defer it, since she always faints in grief before the ceremony can come to a close. In some ways, this ceremony becomes a cipher for everything that remains remote or strange about Ireland, as Louise tries and fails to make inroads into what Lady Haloran describes as “the privacy of our personal duties.” Since her main point of connection to the family was John, and since John is dead – or at least missing, as far as the family are concerned – Louise finds herself perpetually relegated to the fringes of the household, treated with distant cordiality at best (by the other two brothers) and outright hostility at worst (by Lady Haloran). Two additional characters cement this sense of strangeness, one of whom often plays as a cipher for Louise, one of whom never meets her. The first is Kane, John’s fiancée, who is the second American blonde bombshell in the film. The second is Dr. Justin Caleb, the family physician, played by Patrick Magee with the diabolical Englishness he brought to so many B-films during this era.

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Relegated to the fringes of every encounter in the castle, Louise finds a complex Gothic space opening up before her, full of secret passageways, claustrophobic chambers, and sudden shifts from modern to medieval décor. In tracing her movements, Coppola imbues this fairly static setup with an ambling, wandering, expansive sense of space, which offsets even the most staid of interactions with an exploratory and curious quality, from the camera as much as from the characters. The cast rarely inhabit the same same, while Coppola focuses on eccentric and awry relations between his characters, preventing them ever congealing or coming together as a family or ensemble in a consistent way. As a result, it’s quite difficult to read these characters or their relations to one another, just as it’s quite difficult to discern the killer once it becomes clear that there is a psychopath stalking the castle. Instead, Coppola emphasises unusual and unexpected sightlines, characters emerging unexpectedly from marginal spaces and then returning just as quickly to the recesses of the house, evincing the Gothic sensibility that he would eventually bring to bar upon his version of Dracula, as well as his more experimental works of the new millennium.

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Throughout this process, Coppola, who also wrote the film, includes a few key differences from Psycho. While there is a potentially monstrous maternal figure here, in the form of Lady Haloran, she doesn’t have the same role or impact as Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho. As the film proceeds, it becomes clearer and clearer that Lady Haloran is conservative, traumatised and inflexible, rather than monstrous in the sense that is initially promised. Moreover, Louise uses Lady Haloran to her advantage, invoking a Gothic and mystical lexicon to make her believe that Kathleen’s presence is still haunting the mansion, and that she will only be calmed if Louise gets her husband’s inheritance. Rather than Lady Haloran being a matriarch of near-supernatural proportions, Louise partially constructs a supernatural spectacle to get Lady Haloran onside, bringing Louise herself very close to a typical femme fatale, replete with the blonde bob and sunglasses of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Yet in a double twist, Louise doesn’t turn out to be the main villain either, since she is the first victim of the original killer’s renewed rage and rampage. Both Louise and Lady Haloran thus converge on Kathleen as the main casualty of the house, and the original target of the killer’s rage, displacing them both from any direct reworking of Psycho.

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There is, however, a broad structural similarity to Psycho in that both films start with one kind of crime narrative and then shift to a different kind of crime narrative. In both cases, the narrative starts with a scam, only for the perpetrator of the scam – in Psycho Marion, in Dementia 13 Louise – to be displaced by a more emergent slasher presence. In Dementia 13, however, the slasher is more of an ambience, or possibility, collapsed into his or her weapons in the manner that would become so common in the great slasher cycles. This transition from a discrete criminal to a slasher ambience is encapsulated in the way that Coppola treats the subterranean spaces of the castle, and the role of dungeons and cellars in Gothic horror more generally. While these spaces initially promise to provide the main locus of horror, Coppola quickly shifts his attention to the pond outside the castle, where John dies in the opening sequence, and where Kathleen’s trinkets turn out to be concealed.

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Coppola’s fluid camera work tends to be most pronounced around this pond, while the most sustained kill sequences are largely orchestrated around its banks and upon its surface. The subterranean spaces of Gothic horror also become more fluid when we venture underwater, especially in a bravura scene in which Louise dives beneath the surface, discovering a pair of submerged gravestones that figuratively complete the transition from subterranean to submarine horror. The most gruesome body we see is underwater, the most inchoate scream we hear is underwater, and the film starts by collapsing the distinction between land and water into the sticky blackness that Louise and John row across in the opening scene. The critical transition between Gothic and slasher horror also occurs when Louise emerges from her underwater dive to find a silhouette waiting for her with an axe, not unlike the scene where a victim emerges from Camp Crystal Lake to first glimpse Jason in his trademark hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part III. Similarly, the first victim of this axe is a duck hunter who is killed while lying on the ground by the pond in the middle of the night, poised between the ripples on the surface of the water and the ripples of wind blowing through the trees, in one of the most lyrical sequences in the entire movie.

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In all these scenes, the pond becomes a cipher for a new kind of mobile slasher gaze, and a new kind of paranoid slasher space, in which a proliferation of sightlines and saturation of vantage points seem to demand the potency of the slasher’s axe as way of reining in and regulating the viewer’s own gaze. Accordingly, Coppola’s style dramatically shifts, as he opts for low-angle shots that evoke the killer’s presence – and the pivotal moment at which Louise emerges from the pond – even when he or she is absent, along with expressionistic close-ups that overwhelm faces and bodies with amorphous space. While the Halorans try to control and colonise this murky space by draining the pond, their decision simply unleashes this fluidity onto the entire castle, as the pond is generalised into a mobile, liquid, languid gaze that fixates on surfaces, textures and objects with the same fetishistic obsession as Coppola’s own camera. Divested from any one body, this slasher gaze migrates from one character to the next, functioning as an optic potentiality that both elasticizes and opacifies the darkness in the film, which in turn spirals out into ever more marginal spaces.

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By the final scenes of the film, we’re trying to figure out which of the characters is a psychopath, rather than trying to figure out which of the characters is haunted, as Coppola introduces a proto-synth refrain to mark the slasher’s last passages that positions the film between Psycho and the early works of John Carpenter. In a final twist, the criminal here is not an insane mother, but a killer who is paranoid about his mother’s insanity – anxious that he will be reflected in, or reflect, his mother’s psychology in some way. Whereas the doctor at the end of Psycho provides an exposition on Norman Bates’ actions, here Dr. Caleb puts the ideas in John’s head, and so ends up dominating the last part of the film, as a cipher for the “slightly demented atmosphere” and “feeling of depression” he is supposed to cure. In Hitchcock’s film, this final sequence was necessary to regain some vestige of paternal authority after the maternal energy of the film as a whole, but without that authority Dementia 13 is forced to fall back upon – or anticipate – the compensatory slasher paternalism that would flourish a decade later, but is eerily and eloquently articulated here.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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