Out of my many fears, drowning has never been one of them. I’m not a strong enough swimmer to tempt Poseidon, and so stay away from deep bodies of water unless absolutely necessary. The last time I was in open water was the time I hit a seal with a lifeboat. I have sea legs, I just do not possess the ability to swim, having forgotten how to do so some time ago. A short and sweet horror film produced by Roger Corman and directed by a little-known director at the time by the name of Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 drowns in its big ideas, for they are presented on such a small, restricted scale.
Here, these heavy-hitters present an early, American-style Giallo. It would come a year before Blood and Black Lace added the flair of colour and Italian-style dependability to the subgenre, but Coppola is optimistic and willing to give it a whirl. That much translates to the screen. He is out to impress, and impress he does. His command of the camera is exceptional, and his focus on the panicked woman running from issues out of her control is nicely explored. She packs her bags in a panic, constructing a letter about an urgent wire, packing her essentials into a suitcase and fleeing the scene. Her essentials, it seems, are makeup, booze and a coat, although Coppola does not linger on this long enough for it to make an impact. It is the action, rather than the detail, that is important here.
Dementia 13 is based on a woman (without any real motive beyond cash), convincing her family-in-law that her husband has attended a business trip, rather than perished unexpectedly. She buried him at sea. He had suffered a heart attack, forgotten his pills, and she has thus disposed of the body. It is the length Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) goes in convincing them of her husband’s disappearance that is the troublesome chord Coppola does not tune. Anders’ performance is likeable, and surprisingly, pleasantly lacking in the usual guffawing and screaming attributed to leading ladies in the early 60s of Hollywood horrors. Paired with Patrick Magee and William Campbell, there are genuine jumps and underlying fear throughout Dementia 13. It loses its way in rituals and ruminating oddities, slowly losing its grip on the striking intensity of a simple premise. Had it been a tale of trickery in the face of greed, Coppola would have a much stronger piece on his hands.
There are signs of creativity within Dementia 13, but nothing that would majorly define the popular works of Coppola. He is finding his footing on the solo directing road and does so in the relative freedom Corman and Giallo can provide. A splash of colour and Dementia 13 is elevated to the vibrancy presented in European Giallo, but Coppola’s luck runs dry, and the black and white cinematography looks nice but loses that bloody violence necessary for the horror and thriller blend. Fine storytelling presented with forgettable kills, but that brooding sense of unknowing, and the idea that something is not quite right is felt throughout. Effective work from Coppola in that regard, but leaving much to be desired when contemplating Dementia 13’s value in the Giallo genre.