Classic Films

Francis Coppola’s American Nightmare Returns

Luana Anders in Dementia 13 (Lionsgate/Trailer image via YouTube)
1963’s Dementia 13 — a tale of fear, deceit, and murderous greed — remains timely today.

As America enters the tenth month of its Walpurgisnacht, Francis Coppola’s debut film, Dementia 13, is back to remind us of age-old fears — and forgotten pragmatic sanity. Coppola’s directorial debut, in 1963, was originally released on the bottom half of a double bill with X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, as one of Roger Corman’s spooky American International cheapies.

Like The Godfather, the gangster film that would certify Coppola as a world-class film artist a decade later, Dementia 13 also uses genre-movie conventions. But while the emotional depths of this exploitation film are hidden by low-budget shortcuts and discount psychologizing, the generic commonplaces are made evocative by young Coppola’s already evident flair. (The eerie shot of a mechanical doll crawling over Citizen Kane jigsaw-puzzle pieces shows genuine film-student inspiration.)

Starting with mysteries at a manor in Ireland where the American Haloran family’s fortune carries a dark secret and hints at devious individual motives, Coppola provided a journeyman’s script that suited producer Corman’s commercial interest in ready-made horror. Their exploitation of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James creates undeniable cultural echoes.

Just as The Godfather was taken as a metaphor for corporate capitalism, Dementia 13’s tale of fear and greed evokes manic power struggles in America’s longest war — the ongoing class war now evident in our divided cultural politics. Coppola’s opening murder scene reaches back to Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and reaches forward to Godard’s Weekend — references that bookend the corruptions of 20th-century middle-class life.

Dementia 13 distills that discontent into what is essentially a family drama — Coppola’s favorite theme, found in Gardens of Stone, Tucker, the boy-movies The Outsiders and Rumblefish, as well as in several of his late-career indies, including Tetro and the emotive Twixt. Now, in retrospect, we can ponder Dementia 13 for Coppola’s early, instinctive examination of the failures, missed obligations, and disappointments that the family unit has in common with our disintegrating national structure. Each of the Haloran brothers must face the specter of “inherited talent” (just like the Corleone brothers), and each misuses his inheritance, as though falling short of an ideal. One character is described with the comment, “An American . . . you can tell [he’s] been raised on promises.”

It’s not far-fetched to see this era of reckoning and reparations as one of dementia. At last, Poe and Hawthorne’s abiding fears (The Fall of the House of Usher, The House of the Seven Gables) seem to have come back to haunt us in googly-eyed monstrousness that almost looks satirical. Perhaps it will seem so to future historians.

Movie historians will note that the title Dementia 13 is a film-industry prank, borrowed from the exploitation-movie hucksterism made famous by William Castle. A short “D-13” film quiz tested whether audiences were psychologically fit to watch the movie. It’s a joke on Americans’ capacity for carnival-barker deception, no different from a politician’s savvy (or Coppola’s sly T&A shots of female star Luana Anders in moments of distress and danger). Coppola did not shoot the test (Monte Hellman did), and this new Blu-ray restoration of Dementia 13 from Lionsgate/Vestron separates it from the film itself.

Coppola’s continued mission to recut, revise, and rerelease his previous films suggests a dissatisfaction that might be either a personal eccentricity or related to the discontent that characterizes our current Walpurgisnacht. In this recut of Dementia 13 — a politician would call it a “reset” — Coppola also reacquaints us with the standards of trepidation and suspicion that seem to no longer apply during this period of audacious mendacity. Dementia 13 never developed a cult following because it falls short of the psychological compulsion that the Godfather films mined. Yet this story about a family of frustrated, berserk artists contains its own unconscious metaphor for social advancement and control that needs explication today.

Even hackneyed horror movies confront us with the extremes, and a gifted commercial artist such as Coppola can remind us of our limits during a time of stress.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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