Dementia DVD Review
When it first opened, Dementia was described by Variety as “possibly the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release”. You may well sympathise and could see it as the film you dreamed after an evening snack of a particularly piquant type of cheese. In fact, cheese or not, it began life as a ten-minute short inspired by a dream experienced by its leading lady, before being expanded to its present length. For many years it was a film more heard about that seen, but if you have watched The Blob (1958) you will have seen some of it, as it’s the film playing in the cinema that the Blob invades.
The story is straightforward enough. A young woman, unnamed but listed in the credits as “The Gamin” (Adrienne Barrett) lives alone in a skid-row flat in an unnamed city (shot in Venice, California). Something clearly troubles here, and a flashback hints at the roots of her trauma. Outside her flat, at night, are a cast of strange characters, including a newsboy with dwarfism (Angelo Rossitto, uncredited), an evil pimp (Richard Barron), and a rich man (Bruno VeSota), not to mention a jazz band, Shorty Rogers and His Giants. As events become more surreal and nightmarish, it soon becomes clear how much is a dream and how much is happening in the real world.
That partial plot summary (I’ve left out spoilers) doesn’t begin to describe the strange atmosphere that Dementia conjures up. The film is under an hour long, so not actually a feature by some definitions, and is an example of that odd type of film, the post-sound silent. The US major studios made their last silent feature, as in one without a soundtrack in 1930 (The Poor Millionaire, in case you were wondering) but every so often someone tries to revive the form, or parodies it in the case of Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, or wins Oscars for it, as in The Artist. In the early talkie era, F.W. Murnau made Tabu and Charles Chaplin City Lights and Modern Times, with no dialogue but synchronised music and sound effects. While Dementia does not use intertitles, it’s a silent film in all but name. A later example is the Australian Night of Fear, which shares with Dementia its sub-on-hour running time. What we hear is a continuous score by avant-garde composer George Antheil augmented by wailing vocalisations from Marni Nixon (who provided the singing voices for Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn in The King and I, West Side Story and My Fair Lady respectively) and some sound effects.
Visually, Dementia has one foot in film noir, due to the shadowy lighting of cinematographer William C. Thompson (who worked with Ed Wood, including Plan 9 from Outer Space) and another in surreal and semi-underground films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un chien andalou and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Looking forward a little, you can sense some of the film’s DNA in such as Carnival of Souls and Repulsion.
Dementia is the only writing and directing credit for John Parker – or rather not, as he’s uncredited on screen and his name only appears as part of the production company. Parker is something of a mystery, but he appears to have been the son of the head of an Oregon theatre chain. Given how little is known about him, there have been theories that “Parker” was an alias for second lead and associate producer Bruno VeSota, but who knows? For Barrett - who also worked as Parker’s secretary - this is her only film appearance. The connections this film has are often fascinating, and I’ve noted some already. Angelo Rossitto had a long career beginning in 1927 to 1987 (he died in 1991), taking in such films as Freaks and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. There’s even an endorsement at the very start from none other than Preston Sturges, who said that the film stirred his blood and purged his libido, so there you have it.
It’s also not entirely clear when Dementia was shot, though its copyright date is 1953. Parker made ten attempts to have the film screened in New York, only to have it banned each time by the city’s censor board, who regarded it as “inhuman” and “indecent”. It finally had a showing on 22 December 1955, for one night only in a double bill with the documentary Picasso. Two years later, the producer Jack H. Harris bought the film, re-edited it slightly, added a narration spoken by Ed McMahon (uncredited) and retitled it Daughter of Horror, putting it out as the second half of double bills. Harris also produced The Blob, which explains that connection. In the same year, the British Board of Film Censors (as was) rejected Daughter of Horror outright, and it wasn’t passed, with a X certificate restricting it to over-eighteens, until 1970.
The BFI’s release of Dementia is dual-format, comprising a Blu-ray (Region B) and a PAL DVD (Region 2). A checkdisc of the latter was supplied for review, so running times given below feature PAL speed-up. More recently was given a 12 certificate, and Alone with the Monsters, not submitted to the BBFC before now, is also a 12. Dementia runs 53:43 and Daughter of Horror 53:02.
In 1953, the American film industry was just switching over to widescreen, but Dementia, copyrighted that year but no doubt made earlier, was shot in black and white 35mm in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), though come 1955 and indeed 1957 few commercial cinemas other than revival houses and arthouses could show that ratio. That ratio is, however, correct, and that’s what this transfer is in, from a 2K scan and restoration by Cohen Media Group. It looks fine, as dark and shadowy as it should be. Daughter of Horror is in standard definition and the source shows a fair amount of wear and tear.
The soundtrack is the original mono, as mentioned above the score with occasional sound effects and, in the case of Daughter of Horror, Ed McMahon’s fairly sparingly-used if rather lurid narration. There are English hard-of-hearing subtitles available on both versions, though as you might expect they mostly describe the type of music we hear, and sound effects when they occur.
The extras begin with a commentary on Dementia by Kat Ellinger. With about two thirds of the running time of a conventional feature to play with, Ellinger doesn’t waste any time in setting out the details of the film’s production and release and reception and spends much of her allotted time responding to one of the few pieces of critical writing on Dementia. Although this is a noir-type film with a female protagonist who’s not a femme fatale in the usual sense, Ellinger doesn’t see her as coded masculine, despite her brandishing a notably phallic knife. Instead, our protagonist is mostly conservatively dressed and often subservient to the men around her. Ellinger identifies a pervasive atmosphere of threat, of violence against women especially, rare for the period when this film was made, although there isn’t much of this violence on screen. Maybe that’s why the censors got upset. A fine commentary.
BFI releases often include short films from the archive which are tangentially related to the feature, but in this case Alone with the Monsters (15:05) is particularly apposite, and not least because it’s black and white Academy Ratio (16mm this time) with no spoken dialogue (if you don’t count a “Shhh”). An old woman (Molly Terry) lives alone in her house, barricaded against the mockery of the people around her. This short was a beneficiary of the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund and is the work of Nazli Nour, a Londoner of French and Egyptian descent, who was a seventeen-year-old drama student and coffee bar waitress at the time. As well as writing and directing, she is also the second of the credited cast of two, as the old woman’s “inner self”.
I can’t think of any precedents in British cinema for a teenage woman of colour making a film as long ago as 1958, but here it is, and impressive it is too. Alone with the Monsters premiered as part of an experimental programme at the National Film Theatre in October that year and has not exactly been widely shown since, and this appearance as a disc extra marks its first commercial availability. Nour didn’t continue with filmmaking and instead became a poet, but online information about her is sparse: William Fowler’s piece in this disc booklet is the most I’ve found collected in one space. Her cinematographer certainly went on to a distinguished filmmaking career: Walter Lassally. The transfer betrays a lot of damage to its source, with plenty of horizontal scratches. As well as hard-of-hearing subtitles, there is an audio-descriptive soundtrack option.
The remaining extras on the disc relate to the main feature and are Joe Dante’s commentary on the Daughter of Horror trailer from Trailers from Hell (2:21), a restoration demonstration for Dementia (3:05), the original trailer for Daughter of Horror (0:55) and the 2015 trailer for the restoration of Dementia (1:11), and a self-navigating stills gallery (1:56).
The BFI’s booklet, for the first pressing only, runs to twenty-four pages and begins with Ian Schultz’s “Dementia and the Art of Horror” (spoiler warning). William Fowler discusses the two different versions of the film and the booklet also includes reproductions of Preston Sturges’s endorsement, publicity material, stills, full film credits and notes on and credits for the extras.
Dementia will be available to buy on DVD from October 19.