Studio: Chiller Films
Director: Richard LeMay
Writer: Dan De Filippo, Justin Smith
Producer: Dan De Filippo
Stars: Julia Campanelli, Ana Isabelle, Marianne Noscheze, Channing Pickett, Steve Polites, Christian Ryan, Leila Grace, Ben van Berkum, Roland Sands, Donal Brophy, Leif Steinert
A ghost, an ax murderer, two thieves, and an estranged family converge upon a castle where everyone’s secrets are exposed.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1963 directorial debut “Dementia 13” is one of those public domain thrillers like “Night of the Living Dead,” “Carnival of Souls,” or “Plan 9 from Outer Space” that appears on almost every horror DVD budget pack ever created. If you own anything along the lines of “50 Fright Films Collection!” or “25 Classic Terrors for $4.99,” you more than likely have “Dementia 13” on a disc in there somewhere.
Somehow, I’ve never actually sat down to give the movie its due with a viewing, despite it undoubtedly crossing my path on more occasions than can be counted. Its status as a common inclusion on cheapo compilations subconsciously soured me on considering it in any way essential, so I’ve mostly dismissed the film as a Corman quickie whose main relevance is as a Coppola curiosity.
Having now seen Chiller Films’ 2017 remake, the only fresh inspiration I might have to finally plunge into the original would be to verify if it is as bizarrely ill-conceived as this updated version. Either that or to see if problems with plotting, pacing, and production stem from the source material or are entirely new issues. Alas, I’m not driven to solve such mediocre mysteries. Maybe the movie’s macabre melodrama worked 54 years earlier. Today, it plays like a silly soap opera shot as a feature film, with all the same overwrought writing and exaggerated acting usually reserved for daytime TV.
The story involves an implausible convergence of a scheming gold digger, her hired gun accomplices, a masked ax murderer, a drowned girl’s vengeful ghost, and a family full of ingrates whose wealthy matriarch talks to dolls. If that sounds like a nutty amount of nonsense to pack into a slow-burn gothic chiller, wait until a shifty groundskeeper and some backstory about dead Japanese construction workers swirls into the mix.
Considering everything coming together on the grounds of Castle Haloran, where disputes over money mar a memorial service with various nefarious intentions, you’d think the movie wouldn’t be so ploddingly dull. And yet its faint pulse can’t sustain a full blip of intrigue, despite only having to beat for 80 minutes of semi-supernatural suspense.
Enough ham exists in “Dementia 13” to put HoneyBaked out of business. Actors are all over the place, with some fighting to swallow mismatched accents while others perform as though they’re on a Branson, Missouri dinner theater stage.
A big bite of blame falls on dreadful dialogue. In its dizzying tailspin to whip up more than one mystery, lines lean in excessively cryptic directions with consistently vague references to “it” or other unknown entities. One woman phones someone with the instruction, “just get it done.” Another says, “he is the only one who can talk her out of it,” while someone responds, “talk her out of what?” Viewers sighingly pine to find out too, and the movie doesn’t make the wait interesting.
Additionally dippy exchanges include one crook suggesting he and his partner “ride off into the sunset, like Butch and Sundance,” without a hint of irony. Another features forceful foreshadowing when someone says, “the place looks good,” and her companion ominously warns, “looks can be deceiving.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter much since the material isn’t engaging to begin with, but poor editing confusingly trips up the tempo. In one sequence, a woman is seen checking doors in the mansion looking for someplace to hide. The next shot shows a man outside running toward a car less than one hundred yards away. Cut to a third tangent that plays out over a two-minute period before jumping back to the man getting in the car, and then finally to the first woman opening a door. “Dementia 13” either has a peculiar sense of timing, or simply doesn’t grasp how to edit concurrent threads together for pacing.
In the ‘Pros’ column, where entries are few, the sprawling castle grounds make for a visually terrific location. So much so that the camera can’t stop sweeping in on an overhead drone for yet another establishing shot during every other scene change. Production design lifts the look a great deal, only to be boned by sore thumb shortcuts such as a prosthetic face wound that looks like it is trying to conceal a baseball on the actor’s cheek. At least the crew knows enough to film him in profile from the other side of his face.
I don’t know if Coppola’s version also included a cast of inconsistent talent or more storylines than it had the ability to handle. But even without having seen it, I can say with certainty that “Dementia 13” 2017 ends up more like its predecessor than it probably planned on. By that I mean we can expect the flimsy film to quietly join its 1963 brother as forgotten budget-pack filler.
Review Score: 30