Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Dementia 13

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 first mainstream feature (after a pair of what nowadays would be known as softcore films), produced by Roger Corman, probably wouldn't get much attention today were it not for Coppola's name attached to it. It's a rather incoherent but sometimes effectively atmospheric horror movie, with a plot that makes little sense and characters whose personalities sometimes seem to change from scene to scene. Corman wanted Coppola to give him something in the vein of Psycho, and Coppola does just that, right up to offing what appears to be the main character about halfway through the film. The problem is that he takes Psycho's focus on criminal psychology but not its expert crafting of suspense, so the dialogue is a combination of meaningless psychobabble and muddled exposition.

Still, Coppola manages to create a nice foreboding atmosphere in the cavernous old Irish castle where the movie takes place, and his characters are all so screwed up that they can't help but be a little interesting. It's difficult to see a future master filmmaker in here, although the visuals are confident and the opening sequence in particular (in which a woman disposes of her husband's body over the side of a boat) is eerily effective, with an inventive use of music to heighten the creepy mood. That woman is trying to wrangle an inheritance out of her husband's eccentric family, who congregate in the spooky castle, but despite the ax murderer lurking about, her efforts don't have much of a sense of urgency.

Corman was displeased with Coppola's original cut and had another director go in and add a subplot about a bumbling poacher who gets killed, and maybe the director's true vision is more intense and more coherent. For what it actually ended up as, though, Dementia 13 is valuable primarily as a footnote in a great director's biography.

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