Saturday, June 14, 2014

Dementia's Daughter

"The first foreign film ever made in Hollywood."
- Downbeat magazine

"An original work, stinging and icy. To what degree this film is a work of art, we are not certain but, in any case, it is strong stuff."
- Cahiers du cinéma

Too much genre knowledge isn't necessarily a good thing especially when making a horror film. The all-time greats in this milieu were often one-shot deals made by already well established directors just visiting the genre like Kubrick, Friedkin and Franju. Or sometimes they were the sole efforts of unknown directors who had no previous experience in horror. Herk Harvey made industrial training films before his lone foray into the genre with Carnival of Souls. William Huyck and Gloria Katz were novice screenwriters and film school grads with a love of Italian art house cinema when they made the cult classic, Messiah of Evil. New Zealand commercial producer and documentarian Tony Williams' lone horror effort, Next of Kin, was one of the best horror movies to come out of the Ozsploitation era. But both these groups of directors, whether novice or pro, share one thing - they aren't really fans of horror movies and don't claim to know a lot, if anything about them. However, that ignorance may be the reason why the films are so exceptional. Because these filmmakers don't know the formula or orthodoxies, they bring a freshness to the genre that make the films not only unique and timeless but off-kilter with an unusual artistic sensibility that stems from interests or experience in other genres. If they are derivative, it's certainly not from other horror movie influences.


One of the most iconic American horror films of all time is The Blob from 1958. If you look at the marquee over the movie's titular star in the above screenshot, you'll notice Daughter of Horror as one of the features playing at the small town Pennsylvania theater. Ironically, Dementia, (as the altered Daughter of Horror was originally titled) is one of the least iconic American horror films of all time, and one that would definitely not be shown in America's heartland in the 50's. An accessible drive-in monster movie, it's not. Viewing The Blob for virtually five decades, I've seen the small bits of Daughter of Horror in the film's theater scenes countless times, but it was only recently I caught up with Dementia. Ironic indeed that a horror movie like The Blob goes on to become a huge hit, but the better film within a film is lost. To say I was surprised by Dementia would be a bit of an understatement, to say I've become obsessed by it would not.

A silent, psychological horror noir with heavy German expressionist and beat generation influences, Dementia, is a film like no other. The story is about a young woman's one night, dreamlike sojourn through the bowels of an anonymous city. Produced in 1953, but held up by the New York Censor Board (who rejected it no less than eleven times), the film didn't see any kind of distribution stateside until 1955. The British Board of Film Classification withheld a classification in the U.K. until 1970. To a modern day audience raised on David Lynch, Philip Ridley, and Lars von Trier, it will seem pretty tame - well, most of it anyway. But I can just imagine some 1950 theater goer's stunned reaction who, expecting a monster movie, gets this bucketful of weirdness to go along with their popcorn.

The offensive stuff cited by the censors is pretty tame for a mid-50's horror movie and there's certainly a random hypocrisy to the censorship - a male character's hand on a women's knee and a cop taking a bribe are pointed out as objectionable but female characters taking beatings or getting shot is not. It's mostly trivial stuff, especially since other films in the noir and horror genres were getting away with similar content at the time. What I suspect really put the censors off was the tone and foreign-influenced feel of the film. The European, or even South American, art house sensibilities of the piece were very unusual especially for something made in 1953. There are several facets to the film that are responsible for this international flavor:

1. Location - Years before Orson Welles would use the California city of Venice, as a substitute for a Mexican border town in Touch of Evil, director, John Parker would employ it as the skid row section of an unnamed city in Dementia. The streets and architecture feel distinctly foreign at times and the black and white photography only serves to embellish this.

2. Absence of dialogue - Because Dementia is dialogue free, it relies almost completely on its simple but effective visuals to tell the story. The unlikely blending of Murnau expressionism and Pabst realism with a modern 50's, noir-ish urban environment creates distinctive imagery that feels at once classic but also outside of any specific era. Silent horror of this sort hadn't been seen in a quarter of a century and certainly not on North American soil.

3. Adrienne Barrett - She plays the lead role of "The Gamin" and reportedly was John Parker's real life secretary. I'm guessing she was cast for budgetary or other expeditious reasons, but it was most serendipitous, as her non-specific ethnic looks help her fit right into the gritty city environment. At a time when a lot of unmistakably white folks were being (mis)cast in ethnic or interracial roles, it's great to see someone who can believably pass for an inner city denizen in the lead role. I don't actually know Barrett's ethnic or racial origin, but she's a far cry from Doris Day, and this indeterminate ethnicity helps sell the racially-neutral, urban vibe.

4. Abstract settings. Specifically, the furnished, fog-shrouded cemetery, the rich man's spacious building and the interracial hipster bar, all have a surreal feel that initially convinced me I was watching a film made in Mexico by a Buñuel acolyte. Being certain that I'd stumbled onto some little known, avant garde Latin director, I was stunned to see the "Made in Hollywood" credit at the end of the the last reel.

Little is known about the actual production of the film including how much the director John J. Parker was involved in helming the feature. Legendary B-movie character actor and Corman regular, Bruno VeSota (Attack of the Giant Leeches, A Bucket of Blood, The Undead), who played the "Rich Man", claimed to have participated in the directing. Local southern California film students were also rumored to have done a substantial amount of work on Dementia. Veteran DoP, William C. Thompson, a frequent Ed Wood collaborator who shot Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and many other low budget opuses, was the cinematographer and certainly must have had an influence on the direction. Regardless of who should be credited, the competency with which the film was made would suggest a unified vision. The wraparound zoom-in/out of The Gamin's hotel room, the establishment of the skid row characters and setting, the psychological background of the lead exposited in the cemetery and numerous other touches speak to the talent and intelligence of the filmmakers. My favorite example involves a bit with a newspaper. Early on in the story, after The Gamin has left her hotel room, she comes upon a newsboy dwarf (Angelo Rossitto of Freaks and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) selling papers. After the two have an inappropriate chuckle over the lurid headline, The Gamin carelessly drops the paper and the wind blows it around for several scenes until it eventually tumbles under the Rich Man's car tire just as The Gamin is being brought to him to be sold by the "Evil One". Although the movie is pretty straightforward in its plot and delivery, it's little touches like this that elevate it.

Dementia vs Daughter of Horror
New York censors effectively killed Dementia, but in 1955, distributor Jack H. Harris slightly modified it by making two minor cuts and added an expository narration voiced by Ed McMahon. Though McMahon does a credible, and almost unrecognizable, job with the voiceover, it really adds a layer of unneeded obviousness to the film. The ambiguity driven strangeness of Dementia is one of its most appealing facets and the v/o in Daughter of Horror diminishes that greatly. Also, the spoken narration breaks the spell of virtual silence, which in Dementia is only interrupted by the rare, barely noticeable sound effect until the scream at the end.

Intelligent, quality filmmaking like this does not come by accident, and whether it was Parker alone, or a fine-tuned collaboration, someone deserves a lot of credit. It is sad that this was his only film, but like a lot of the great, horror one-shots, it has an originality that only comes with inexperience and ignorance of the genre.
Score 8.75/10