With 'Dementia 13,' one of Francis Ford Coppola's first writing and directing credits, one cannot help but keep expectations low. Even the back cover of the Blu-ray release states it was made with budget leftovers from another film, meant to piggyback on the success of the mold breaking 'Psycho' from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. The mere mention of Roger Corman should also keep viewers from expecting a masterpiece. Instead, this is a film where budding talent gets to experiment, learn the ropes, the ins and outs of the business, a no risk, no gain feature that fell into public domain status.
If anything, the stories about Corman and Coppola arguing about the film constantly, to the point that another director was brought in, and a new prologue was made (though it is not found on this release) are more interesting than the film itself. Coppola's rushed script somewhat incoherently strings together a list of characters, with a series of nasty incidents and "accidents" that are meant to put its audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the reveal of the mysterious murderer. Only, that doesn't work out. Instead, we have a film that shamelessly borrows from more successful titles of the era, somewhat devoid of its own personality. Somehow, though, it still works, and can be an entertaining, albeit somewhat curious, 75 minute experiment.
The opening of the film is somewhat ridiculous in the scope of the remainder, as a freak heart attack leaves Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) widowed, and her place (and inheritance) in the affluent family in jeopardy, so much so that she covers up her husband's death, making it appear as though he left to New York on business. These scenes have a nice (borrowed) vibe to them, leading viewers to believe they are going to witness a film where complicated lies and dilemmas lead to an increased body count and plenty of suspense. Rather than the obvious route, Coppola's flick instead ventures on to Louise's dealings with her dead husband's siblings and mother, as they are all haunted by the death of the boys' only sister years before, so much so that they have a yearly remembrance. As if the floodgates have been opened, there will be a series of deaths on the historic property, and the bizarre ritual will be the killer's undoing.
'Dementia 13' really struggles at times with progressing the plot. It seems Coppola wasn't yet familiar enough with writing to string character development along with story, so there are random detours and prolonged conversations that really don't progress either the characters or the film in any manner. The more characters introduced, the more potential victims and/or killers, and as the family is fleshed out, along with the neighboring non-familial folk, the more time is spent on trying to make them seem viable, to make relationships and familiarity seem natural, and the opposite happens. So, instead of a somewhat straight line with a twist here and there becomes a scribble of sorts, full of loops and zig zags as the conclusion is stumbled upon rather than built up to.
I'll admit, 'Dementia 13' has the creep factor down, even if it's mishandled, with the obsession over the dead girl, and the large, somewhat sinister housing creating all the atmosphere and tension one would ever need, and that's before all the stark black and white imagery is enhanced by the imaginative lighting, creating looming, curious shadows, hiding faces as well as intentions. The amount of information not brought up also adds to the mystery, an accident of sorts, that works in the film's favor, as the more it tries to flesh out, the more problematic the story gets.
Coppola is a great director and writer; this much cannot be argued. But everyone starts somewhere, and his earlier efforts captured here are among those first baby steps towards standing up tall above his peers. I doubt many who saw 'Dementia 13' in its first run as a double feature with 'X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes' were all too impressed with the plot or pace, but the atmosphere, sometimes even the lack thereof, is what sells this shoestring budgeted feature. It's short, it's to the point, and it's mysterious and bizarre. Judged today, the rationale behind this feature's fall into relative obscurity isn't hard to decipher, but I can imagine more than a few audience members being struck by this feature. Let's face it: wax dolls of dead children, no matter the circumstances, are friggin' creepy, and this film has more than a few scenes featuring a remembrance of Kathleen in a less than comforting manner.
The Disc: Vital Stats
HD Cinema Classics bring this 1963 black and white horror feature to Blu-ray on a Region A marked BD25 disc. There is no annoying pre-menu content. This release features a bonus DVD of the film (coded Region 0), along with a postcard replicating the poster art. While 'Dementia 13' is a public domain title, the remastering found here is copyrighted and therefore exclusive to this release.
With a digitally restored 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode, 'Dementia 13' doesn't look bad at all. In fact, in some segments, it can look very pleasant. It's just uneven and somewhat sporadic.
The picture has some random shakiness to it, with some blurriness and smearing that are normally telltale signs of DNR, and the random grain freeze makes the use of this tool a bit more than obvious. However, the film exhibits great edges, a very clean appearance, all things considered, with only a few distracting blips or scratches popping up. Picture depth is regularly fantastic, and detail can be eye catching, for sure. The random flicker isn't a big turn off, but the varying black levels did annoy me after a while. Delineation was hit or miss due to the fading-slash-deepening dark shades found throughout. Whites glow very rarely, not enough to be bothered over. All in all, the video qualities for this release are what I'd consider par for the course. The titles in this collection aren't those one can expect five star video from, and sometimes one has to make the best of a situation.
Fans of 'Dementia 13' should be pleased with the end result.
'Dementia 13' on Blu-ray has two lossy options, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, and no lossless or higher resolution track. The 5.1 mix is the default track and it isn't all that 5.1-ish, to be frank.
The rear speakers have as close to no activity as is feasibly possible, and the .1 is about as heavy as a feather. Throw in some random background whirring noises, some harsh and very hollow dialogue, and beyond questionable dynamics (let's just say that not a single scene sounds like it would in the setting it appears in), on top of bare minimal range and less frills than a body bag, and you have this Blu-ray's audio experience. I really don't think that this particular distributor is all that involved in making films sound good. Audio can be in HD, too, HD Cinema Classics, and capable of a nice, noticeable restoration, as well. Just sayin'.
This release is a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack, and the second disc is a fully functioning bonus copy of the film.
'Dementia 13' isn't a great horror film, but it's a nice look at the budding talent of a man who would help change cinema with a spat of titles regarded amongst the best of their genre. The misfires and miscues in the film are everywhere, and the "homages" are a bit too obvious and groan worthy. HD Cinema Classics' release of the film on Blu-ray sports good video, all things considered, very questionable audio, and a few extras, all of which are worth their weight in gold. This release is worth a look, at the very least, with the low MSRP making it a pain free blind buy or add on to another order.