Dementia 13: The Film That Took Francis Ford Coppola From Schlockster to Auteur


The Con­ver­sa­tion, Apoc­alpyse Now, The God­fa­ther — Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la’s movies come so big that even the most casu­al cinephiles vivid­ly remem­ber their first expe­ri­ences with them. Of course, Cop­po­la made all of those in the sev­en­ties, when he held down the posi­tion of one of the lead­ing lights of the New Hol­ly­wood move­ment, when major Amer­i­can stu­dios grew will­ing to tap the uncon­ven­tion­al but ulti­mate­ly for­mi­da­ble cin­e­mat­ic tal­ents of a vari­ety of young auteurs. They backed every­one from Cop­po­la to Mar­tin Scors­ese to Peter Bog­danovich to Michael Cimi­no, and we enjoy the fruits of their gam­ble even today. Enthu­si­asts of Amer­i­can cin­e­ma remem­ber that peri­od — along with its echo, the Sun­dance-Mira­max-dri­ven “indie” boom of the nineties — as a gold­en age. Cop­po­la has­n’t stopped mak­ing films, and even if his lat­ter-day projects like Youth With­out Youth and Tetro haven’t gained such icon­ic stature in the cul­ture, some­thing in them nev­er­the­less lodges in your mind, demand­ing fur­ther view­ing and reflec­tion.

You’ll find an equal­ly fas­ci­nat­ing exam­ple of Cop­po­la’s work if you look before the New Hol­ly­wood era, all the way back to a 75-minute piece of black-and-white psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror called Demen­tia 13. Watch it in its entire­ty on YouTube for both the for­ma­tive piece of Cop­po­la’s art and the 1963 piece of Roger Cor­man-pro­duced junk that it some­how is. The pic­ture rep­re­sents a tran­si­tion point between the young Cop­po­la, sound tech­ni­cian and direc­tor of “nudie” films, and the mature Cop­po­la, laud­ed with crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial acclaim but sub­ject to an almost self-destruc­tive grand­ness of ambi­tion. Cor­man, who had $22,000 lay­ing around after his last pro­duc­tion, asked Cop­po­la for a Psy­cho knock­off. Cop­po­la pro­ceed­ed to round up a few of his UCLA pals and shoot Demen­tia 13 in Ire­land, return­ing with an alto­geth­er more sub­tle and sub­dued movie than Cor­man could have expect­ed. (Not that it’s par­tic­u­lar­ly hard to over­shoot Roger Cor­man-style expec­ta­tions in those depart­ments.)

To watch Demen­tia 13 now is to wit­ness Cop­po­la’s con­trol of ten­sion and dark­ness in its embry­on­ic — but still impres­sive — form. Nobody involved in the pro­duc­tion could have delud­ed them­selves about its goal of shoot­ing a few max­i­mal­ly grue­some axe mur­ders as quick­ly and cheap­ly as pos­si­ble, but even such strait­ened cir­cum­stances allow for pock­ets of artistry to bub­ble through. Emerg­ing from the school of cheap thrills into ulti­mate respectabil­i­ty was­n’t an unknown sto­ry for Cop­po­la’s cin­e­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion. Today’s seri­ous young direc­tors seem to pre­fer hon­ing their chops with now-inex­pen­sive video gear, mak­ing films that cost far less than $22,000 and thus avoid­ing com­pro­mis­ing their sen­si­bil­i­ties. That strikes me as a step for­ward, but watch­ing movies in the class of this unlike­ly Cor­man-Cop­po­la part­ner­ship will always make you won­der what we’ve lost now that our best film­mak­ers don’t have to pay their dues in the wild world of schlock.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.