Sunday, October 5, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Dementia 13

A close call with a madman in Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 5: Dementia 13 (1963)

Francis Ford Coppola, the part-time winemaker and full-time cinematic legend, has made roughly 30 films in his six-decade career. Some are Academy Award-winning classics, and some are baffling misfires, but none is like Dementia 13.

Coppola was working in Ireland as an assistant to B-movie super-producer Roger Corman, when Coppola asked if he could make his own picture. Always looking for ways to stretch a dollar, Corman consented but on the condition Coppola use the same cast, crew, and set as the movie they were working on (The Young Racers) and shoot around their schedule.

That he produced anything remotely watchable is a miracle, but Dementia 13 goes far beyond that. Coppola’s tale of an ax-wielding maniac terrorizing a family that is probably a little too close and guarded is a creep-fest from the word go. And despite some hammy acting and less-than-ideal work conditions, there is every indication in this film of the genius that was to come.

A lot of story is packed into a tight 75-minute run time, and each new element adds a layer of intrigue and oddity to an already wild scenario. Most of the film takes place at the massive estate of the wealthy Haloran family. They have gathered to remember the drowning death of the youngest Haloran child, a macabre annual tradition that is marked this year by murders and disappearances.

Standing in for the audience is Kane, played by Mary Mitchell. She is the fiancée of one of the Haloran boys and is ill at ease from the start of the festivities. She is the outsider, and we interpret these sordid events through her eyes, something that brings the sheer size of the estate into play. Kane could never know these halls as well as the family, so she is always off balance.

Anyone on the grounds could be the killer, but she is lost in the maze of this home, while figuratively being lost in the power struggle among the Halorans. That feeling of vertigo carries all the way through the film’s climax, and it is a feeling that sticks with viewers long after they are allowed to leave the imposing Haloran estate.

Tomorrow, we explore another sprawling property that proves inhospitable to guests.

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