Francis Ford Coppola’s directorial debut, produced by horror king Roger Corman, is a terror-filled tale of family ties chopped to pieces. DEMENTIA 13′s opening scene of Louise and John Haloran alone on a boat drifting nowhere (as an Elvis Presley song plays hauntingly) is reminiscent of many Hitchcock films. Its 1963 release was just the beginning of what, for Coppola, would be a long career of helming chillingly powerful masterworks such as APOCALYPSE NOW and THE GODFATHER.
Gruesome axe murders plague the menacing ancestral castle of the Halorans, a family whose heritage includes greed, deception and death. Louise Haloran wants to enjoy a piece of her husband John’s fortune, but when he suddenly dies without including her in his will, the scheming wife conceals the death from the family. The castle is haunted by the spirit of John’s long dead younger sister Kathleen. When Lady Haloran announces she will give all her money to charity in the name of Kathleen, greedy Louise concocts a plan.
Arranging some of Kathleen’s possessions in the pond where the girl drowned, Louise emerges from the dark waters only to be attacked and murdered. The weapon: a razor-sharp axe! A killing spree erupts on the Haloran estate, seemingly motivated by the murderer’s obsession with Kathleen. The surviving Halorans must discover the killer’s identity before their fate is sealed.
Inspired by the success of Psycho, Dementia 13 is a startling early effort from writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. Reportedly made for less than $45,000 (an astonishingly low budget), Dementia 13 still manages to pack a powerful punch with moody photography, a stirring music score by Ronald Stein and violent scenes that remain effective today.
While Roger Corman was in Europe shooting The Young Racers, crew member Coppola presented him with a screenplay and offered to direct Dementia 13 on-the-fly, borrowing The Young Racers acting principals and piecing together a technical crew from available talent, Coppola created a triumph of art over budget. As if the already ultra-sensational demise of Luana Anders was not strong enough, an additional murder sequence, directed in a cavalier manner by Jack Hill, was later inserted by Corman who insisted on more over-the-top violence.
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