Like most low-budget horror producers, Roger Corman wanted his very own Psycho when Hitchcock’s 1960 filmed became a genre-spawning mega-hit. Corman handed the assignment to a basically untried aspiring writer/director named Francis Coppola. Yes, the Francis Coppola who would soon squeeze a Ford between his first and last names. The resulting product, Dementia 13, is not at the level of Corman’s own lush Poe-inspired horrors, but it most certainly rises above the cheesiness of the assignment. Psycho’s beats are easy to spot. There’s a scheming blonde (Luana Anders) who gets a violent surprise halfway through the picture (with a pond subbing for Hitch’s shower). There are grotesque family secrets hidden in a Gothic residence that involve a demented Mom and a weedy young man, and there is a series of nasty murders (with an axe subbing for Hitch’s kitchen knife), though a surprising lack of blood. Ronald Stein’s score is pure Herrmann.
However, Coppola makes his picture stand out with some original and very effective flourishes. Most striking is the horrifying sight of a little girl’s corpse that keeps popping up all over the place. Subtler is the most effectively eerie use of underwater photography since The Night of the Hunter. Plus, there’s the ever-delicious hunk of ham Patrick Magee as the family doctor who leads the investigation at the Haloran family’s Irish castle and there’s Anders. Always memorable in cult classics like Easy Rider, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Last Detail, Anders’s presence is a handy indicator that you’re watching something pretty cool.
Like a lot of Roger Corman movies, Dementia 13 is in the public domain and has appeared on a lot of bad DVDs cheapies. The Film Detective’s new Blu-ray scrubs up the film pretty well. The picture is very soft and short on detail, but it’s agreeably clean. White specks flit in and out throughout the picture, but never become overwhelming. Contrast is a bit inconsistent, but it’s strong for the majority of the film. The sound isn’t great, but the faulty for that most likely lies with the way it was recorded back in 1963 and not The Film Detective, which has done a good job with a very underrated little horror flick.