Before the New Hollywood movement busted up the established dinosaurs of the Studio System, one of the best ways for young outsiders to break into filmmaking was through the Roger Corman Film School. Because the maniacally frugal producer would hand off cheap, quick film shoots to anyone he suspected might be competent enough to handle the task, many young filmmakers who would later define the New Hollywood era cut their teeth with on-the-job training making films for Roger Corman & AIP: Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda, Hopper, Demme, etc. There was a kind of freedom to this pedal-to-the-floor cheapo genre film production cycle, but many projects Corman handed to his de facto “students” were . . . less than ideal, considering their art cinema sensibilities. That’s how the world was gifted weird mishmash projects like Peter Bogdanovich getting his start directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women by smashing together scenes of over-dubbed Soviet sci-fi films with new footage of beachside bikini babes. Another future New Hollywood upstart, Frances Ford Coppola, got his foot in the door recutting & dubbing those same Russian sci-fi films alongside Bogdanovich in the editing room. Coppola also got his own start directing “mainstream” narrative features (as opposed to his earlier nudie cutie work) through a hodgepodge project Corman handed to him in a rush. Hastily slapped together on the back of $20,000 of budgetary leftovers from another AIP production, Coppola’s Dementia 13 is one of those Corman projects like Blood Bath or The Terror that are left almost entirely incomprehensible by their corner-cutting, behind the scenes shenanigans. The film afforded Coppola the opportunity to experiment with his sense of craft on the job, though, as he strived to make a more serious, artful picture than what’s usually expected from Croman fare. The results were mixed, but worthwhile.
Urged by AIP to deliver a quick, cheap riff on Psycho, Coppola filters a Hitchcockian mad-killer plot through a Gothic haunted house template. Packed with axe-murders, underwater doll parts, badly dubbed performances, and gradual descents into madness, the film often feels like a cheap black & white take on giallo surreality. Like giallo, it values imagery over narrative coherence, requiring a Wikipedia read-through of its basic plot after the end credits roll. It opens with a Psycho/Carnival of Souls-style setup of a lone woman in flight from her past crises. In this case, she’s a money-hungry schemer who pretends that her late husband is still alive so she can ingratiate herself to his mother for inheritance money. She moves in with the “not” dead husband’s family in their Gothic manor, which is lousy with hidden passageways and dark family secrets. The family is unhealthily obsessed with the drowning of their youngest daughter years in the past, a weakness the woman hopes to exploit to con them out of their money. What happens from there is up for interpretation, as the past drowning death and a series of current axe murders open the film up to hazily-defined mysteries befitting of the world’s most incomprehensible gialli. Although the producer afforded Coppola total freedom to write & direct the film he wanted, Corman was frustrated with its incomprehensible plot, which he decided to punch up with a series of changes that dampened its art film appeal: Irish accents dubbed over with unenthused American ones; Jack Hill-directed inserts of comic relief; a runtime-padding intro that administered a mental stability test to the audience in a William Castle-style gimmick. Corman didn’t clarify the plot of Coppola’s film so much as he compromised its overall artistic vision. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it’s clear the film would have would have been a total mess either way.
What an interesting mess, though! Although not as fun as similarly incomprehensible horror cheapies like Blood Bath or A Night to Dismember, Dementia 13 at the very least provides a stage for a young Coppola to test out his visual experiments to varying success, without any real stakes for them having to pay off (it wouldn’t be the first or last time someone wasted AIP money). As it opened on a double bill with the excellent sci-fi horror The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, possibly Corman’s best directorial effort outside The Masque of the Red Death, it’s clear that the student had yet to become the master. Like many other future New Hollywood film nerds, though, Coppola was better for the Roger Corman Film School having afforded him an opportunity to gain mainstream experience behind the camera, even if the immediate results weren’t as compelling as a Targets or even a Death Race 2000.