Dementia 13 (1963)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Blood Bath (1966)

As a producer, Roger Corman’s tireless mission to miraculously make money out of scraps of garbage is legendary. He’d often reuse sequences from previous productions, purchase foreign films for American re-edits, rip off his own intellectual properties for self-cannibalized premises, and all other kinds of scrappy cinematic recycling imaginable just to sell a cheap genre picture for a tidy profit. I can’t argue that the 1966 Corman production Blood Bath is the pinnacle result of this kind of absurd, behind the scenes pragmatism gone mad, but it does deserve credit for gathering all of Corman’s penny-pinching schemes into a single project. Corman initially co-produced the Yugoslavian noir picture Operation: Titan with plans to reissue it as an American release. He then hired notable schlockmeister Jack Hill to direct new scenes to recontextualize the film for an American audience, which Hill did by transforming it into an oddly self-serious rip-off of the classic Corman comedy Bucket of Blood, a campy satire of beatniks & artist types. Unsatisfied with Hill’s treatment, titled Portrait in Terror, Corman then hired a third director, The Velvet Vampire’s Stephanie Rothman, who added an entirely new A-plot about a shapeshifting vampire to the mix. You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.

The similarities between Blood Bath & Bucket of Blood’s basic plots are undeniable. A community of comically pretentious visual artists are disturbed when models form their community are reported dead or missing, then appear in the work of a colleague. Hill’s contribution to the film seems largely to be the Bucket of Blood-style humor of this arts scene drama, especially when the artists experiment with new processes for applying paint to canvas, such as shooting it out of a gun or directly applying it via a model’s face. According to Hill, Rothman “ruined” the picture with her vampirirc contribution, which shifts the work into a much more serious, psychedelic tone. If anything, she made it interesting & distinct, steering it away from a straight Bucket of Blood retread. Instead of the awkward bus boy Dick Miller plays in Bucket of Blood, Rothman crafts a villain that goes through Jekyll & Hyde transformations from passionate artist to centuries-old vampire with insatiable appetite. She maintains some of Hill’s humor, even including sequences that are essentially beach blanket parties with bikini babes. This humor is made to clash with a more serious, surreal tone, however, as her vampire/painter struggles with a classic Madonna-whore complex. He is romantically drawn to beautiful women, but transforms into a bloodthirsty monster whenever they make a pass at him, a dynamic that gives the movie a thematic point of view on top of a ridiculously fractured premise. I’m in love with the insane collage that emerges in the final draft of Blood Bath and that credit goes just as much to Rothman’s eye as it does to Corman’s machinations as a producer.

You’ll find very few films that can deliver this much movie in such a short amount of time. At just 60 minutes in length, Blood Bath is filled to the brim with seemingly incongruous, but oddly beautiful sequences: an underwater vampire kill, a rip-off of the carousel sequence from Strangers on a Train, surrealist scenes of women taunting the camera/killer from inside paintings & dreamlike desertscapes, interpretive dance, noir foot chases worthy of The Third Man, etc. Rothman & Corman’s mismatched film collage has no business even being watchable, much less as oddly fun & engaging as it feels as a “final” product (Corman later added several minutes of bikini-clad dancing to fill out more time for a TV-broadcast of the film). Jack Hill deserves some credit for lightening up the mood of the noir sequences with his own layer of beatnik-satirizing Bucket of Blood retreads, but it’s really Rothman’s surrealist eye & Corman’s insane production instincts that make Blood Bath so mesmerizing. Obviously, not all audiences are going to have a stomach for this kind of production-level incoherence, but I urge anyone interested in Corman’s weirdo decision making as a business man to give this picture an honest chance. Besides its easy-to-digest runtime and immediate appeal as an eccentric horror film, Blood Bath is also currently in the public to main and available to watch on Archive.org, so you really have no excuses to give this damned-from-conception Frankenfilm a chance.

-Brandon Ledet