Posted by Susan Doll on August 29, 2016
Francis Ford Coppola cut his teeth in the film industry working for B-movie master Roger Corman as a script doctor, dialogue writer, sound tech, and all-around jack of all trades. As a supplement to Coppola’s education in cinema studies at UCLA, Corman’s tutelage provided a “film education” from a practical perspective. Later, Corman would enhance the educations of other writers and directors, including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne, Nicolas Roeg, and Jonathan Demme, by hiring them to write, direct, or shoot his B-movies. This combination of formal schooling and “Corman College” gave this group of filmmakers—the Film School Generation—a unique understanding and appreciation of cinema. I can’t help but think that this is what makes the FSG difficult to match in terms of mastery of the medium.
I recently watched Coppola’s debut directorial feature, Dementia 13, for the first time, and I could see the influences of both a formal film education and Corman College.
While in graduate school at UCLA, the 24-year-old was hired by Corman to construct a story around a Russian science-fiction movie he had acquired, which eventually became Battle Beyond the Sun. Coppola continued to work for Corman as an assistant, where he was exposed to the producer’s down-and-dirty, low-budget practices and lightning-fast schedules. He traveled to Liverpool with Corman to serve as the sound engineer for The Young Racers. When Corman realized that he had $20,000 left from his budget, he told Coppola that if he could conceive an idea for a horror movie that could be shot quickly, he could direct it.
Coppola wrote a sequence in which a man dives into a pond carrying five dolls that he has tied together. When he reaches the bottom of the pond, he stumbles across the body of a little girl. Just as the shock of his discovery sets in, he gets hacked to death by an ax murderer. Corman liked the selection of sensationalized horror imagery and gave Coppola the go-ahead , provided that the character was changed into a woman. The fledgling director also promised a healthy amount of sex and violence. Coppola wrote the screenplay over three days and three nights—a time frame not unusual for Corman College.
Corman gave Coppola nine days to shoot the film, which was originally titled Dementia to remind audiences of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Hammer Films’ Maniac, and William Castle’s Homicidal. Later, they discovered an earlier film with the same title, so the mysterious “13” was added, though it has no bearing on the story. With his nine production days, Coppola shot at Ardmore Studios in Dublin, then took a few days to shoot on location at an Irish castle. The short schedule, echoes of Psycho, and faith in the drawing power of sex and violence are straight out of Corman College.
Corman was not satisfied with the rough cut of Dementia 13, partly because the film consisted of a series of murders without sufficient material to connect the scenes. Additional scenes were shot at Griffith Park upon the company’s return to Los Angeles. Corman finally hired Jack Hill to add another ax-murder to the film more brutal than those Coppola had shot. The following year, Hill would direct the cult movie Spider Baby, which is about the last of a degenerate family suffering from a regressive disease who live in a run-down mansion. Hill’s exploitation approach to material was more suited to Corman’s aesthetic.
Like most of the Film School Generation, Coppola’s experience in a film program nurtured his “cinephilia,” that is, his love and knowledge of movies from all genres, eras, and countries. Coppola would go on to explore genre by updating the gangster film with The Godfather Trilogy and the war drama with Apocalypse Now. His later experiments in genre-busting in One from the Heart and The Cotton Club violated and twisted conventions to the point where audiences were befuddled and critics frustrated. Dementia 13 comes too early in his career for such personal approaches to genre, but it does reveal the young director’s thorough knowledge of the horror film.
The familiar story is set on an isolated Irish estate, where members of the Haloran family return each year to re-create the funeral of a beloved sister who drowned when she was a little girl. Stern Mother Haloran obsesses on her little girl in death just as she had doted on her in life, neglecting her three sons in the process. Two sons rebel by falling for beautiful American blondes, which displeases Mother. Complications include the machinations of a mysterious family doctor who lingers around the estate, and the fatal heart attack of the oldest son, which prompts his widow to explain his disappearance as a last-minute business trip. The monster of this gothic horror tale is a psychopathic ax murderer, whose identity could be any one of the main characters. As in many a horror film, the monster is a physical manifestation of the dysfunction within the family, which began when the patriarch died and left his widow in charge of the large estate. The monster literally emerges with the death of the little girl, but it is symbolic of the rupture in the family due to disharmony and discord.
The setting of the secluded Irish estate is not only a familiar horror convention but one of the strengths of the film. The Gothic architecture, dark corridors, and sense of isolation create a moody atmosphere enhanced by the black-and-white cinematography. The castle-like setting and buxom blondes reminded me of Hammer horror films, but there were also details that were straight out of German Expressionism. Characters are reflected in mirrors or windows, suggesting their doppelgangers, or sinister sides, which they keep hidden from the others. Everyday objects that would otherwise be harmless seem disturbing when depicted out of context and in close-up, such as the toy monkey that holds an ax, or the broken head of a doll.
Coppola also borrowed imagery from specific Hollywood films. The portrait of the dead little girl looms large in the living room just as she dominates the lives of the family members, much like the paintings in Laura or Portrait of Jennie. When writing the scene in which the little girl’s body is discovered at the bottom of the pond, Coppola described her long hair floating eerily in the water, like the hair of Shelley Winters’ character in Night of the Hunter. The clean, clear Blu-Ray version that I watched was devoid of scratches, breaks, or hairs, which can detract from such important visual details. It was reportedly digitally restored from “35mm archival film elements” by a company called the Film Detective, which is distributed by Allied Vaughn. Given the film’s age and quickie production, as well as the growing focus on streaming (i.e. convenience over quality), I doubt if a better version of the film will ever exist.
While some critics and scholars posit Dementia 13 as the effort of a hungry director eager to break into Hollywood, I see it as telling start to Coppola’s career. It seems to reflect his early experiences as both a graduate of UCLA and Corman College, while showcasing his understanding of genre cinema.
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