Dementia 13 (1963): Coppola’s Debut, Low-Budget Horror Thriller

At the young age of 24, Francis Ford Coppola, then a student of Dorothy Arzner at UCLA Film School, was given the job of directing a low-budget horror thriller by producer Roger Corman.

The condition of the factory’s master was that Coppola would reuse the sets for another film which Corman was shooting in Ireland.

The standard-issue story centers on a dysfunctional Haloran family, whose members live in a state of perpetual fear and sorrow in a spooky Irish castle. Mourning the death of her young daughter Kathleen, only 13, who had drowned mysteriously in the lake seven years ago, Lady Haloran (Ethne Dunn) feels guilt and ths tortures herself regularly by visiting the girl’s grave.

When daughter-in-law Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) loses her husband to a heart attack, she decides to conceal the body, fearing of being cut out of Lady Haloran’s will.  Complicating matters and turning the story sillier, a mysterious interloper begins prowling the grounds with a huge axe to grind

This wannabe quirky psychological-thriller is enlivened by Coppola’s inventive camera setups, atmospheric locations, black-and-white style.

The acting is sharply uneven.  Patrick Magee seems to have a lot of fun, rendering an over-the-top performance as the leering family doctor. The women, however, acquit themselves less honorably, largely due to the poor dialogue, co-written by Coppola and Jack Hill.

Overall, as far as production values are concerned, the flick is a notch above the norm of Corman’s other cheap and sleazy horrors.  The influence of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) and other classic genre films on “Dementia 13” is unmistakable.

There was no way to tell by “Dementia 13,” or, for that matter, by the two films that followed, thet in less than a decade, Coppola would become the greatest filmmaker of the New American Cinema of the 1970s, directing four masterpieces in a row: The Godfather (1972), “The Godfather, Part Two (1974), “The Conversation” (also 1974), and “Apocalypse Now” (1979).

Running time: 81 Minutes.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Written by Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill.

On DVD: December 22, 1998

Madacy Home Video