Dementia 13 was the first proper movie from Francis Ford Coppola. He had shot and re-edited two soft-core films previously—Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, both collaborations with Jack Hill—that he probably wouldn’t want to mention, but Dementia 13 was made while he was a film student at UCLA. His next film, his Richard Lester-like You’re a Big Boy Now, was picked up by Warner Brothers.
At the time, Roger Corman was always scouting at UCLA for cheap crew and potential directors. He gave Coppola his first job, re-editing a Soviet science fiction film, Nebot Zovyot, which became Battle Beyond the Sun. This was a pretty typical Corman starter gig at the time. Coppola also worked on Tower of London and The Young Racers, and was one of multiple uncredited directors on The Terror.
For Dementia 13, they were shooting The Young Racers in Ireland (which was probably a tax dodge for Corman), and Corman told Coppola that if he could come up with a script for a cheap horror film, he could also direct it. The result is a goofy film with a little bit of Psycho in it, and a plot that’s all over the place. It’s about a woman, Louise, whose husband has a heart attack and dies on a boat. If he’s dead, she won’t get his inheritance, so she invites herself to the family’s estate in Ireland and tries to figure out some way to get her dead husband’s money, while pretending he’s away on business in New York. Meanwhile, there’s an axe killer on the loose on the family estate—no, the film does not make a huge amount of sense. It was shot in nine days.
Although it’s a very silly movie, I love it that Coppola has gone out of his way, and probably reached into his own pockets, to restore it. The film has been in public domain hell for years, with the kind of mismarketing you would expect (“from the director of The Godfather—Dementia 13!”) It was also marketed by Corman under various titles. Coppola wanted to go back and cut it because he and Corman were at loggerheads over the original cut, while Coppola had secretly raised some extra money via sale of European rights to producer Raymond Stross (Stross’s most notable film was probably The Leather Boys). Somewhat wisely, Corman thought the film was a bit incomprehensible—which it is—so he brought in Jack Hill and Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) to shoot enough extra footage to pad out the final version. Hill and Hellman were doing a lot of that kind of work for Corman at the time (even later on, Monty Hellman shot a prologue for the ABC TV version of A Fistful of Dollars, using a Clint Eastwood stand-in…) They both knew Coppola would soon be moving on to bigger things, so the young director decided not to get into it with Corman over the cut.
Nevertheless, the plot is still a mess. The acting is OK, with some of Corman’s B-movie stalwarts in place plus Patrick Magee, an actually good actor. Magee did a lot of Beckett and Pinter plays, and in film is best known for being the writer who is tortured by Alex in A Clockwork Orange. He also appeared in Barry Lyndon. Here Magee plays the family doctor who ultimately solves the mystery.
The film toured as the lower half of an AIP double bill with The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, one of the most profound B-movies ever made and one of Corman’s best. The 13 was tagged on to its title to distinguish it from the 1955 cult film oddity Dementia.
The extras on the director’s cut disc includes a new intro and a commentary track from Coppola, plus a prologue that had been deleted from the film.