“Inhuman & Indecent”… The Ongoing Enigma Of DEMENTIA.

BD / DVD. BFI. Region B. 12.

The first time you watched Eraserhead (1977) or maybe Carnival Of Souls (1962), did you think to yourself: “I’ve never seen anything quite like that before?” If you did, you probably hadn’t seen Dementia (made in 1953, finally released in 1955) though I’d be prepared to wager that David Lynch and Herk Hervey did, before taking up their cameras. This singular cinematic oddity has exerted an unacknowledged influence over countless films, arguably encompassing Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and offerings as recent as David Slade’s contribution (This Way To Egress) to the 2018 portmanteau effort Nightmare Cinema (2018)… and you know what? I’m even starting to wonder about the opening shots of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)…

Of course the most maddening thing about this visual record of one psychotic woman (Adrienne Barrett) and her long day’s journey into night is how very little we know (doodly squat, to be precise) about Dementia’s elusive writer / director John Parker. He isn’t even granted either of those credits on any print (“a John Parker production” is as far as it goes) and although Parker family money apparently underwrote the picture, some commentators detect the veiled auteurial hand of associate producer Bruno VeSota, who lent his imposing (Orson Welles-like) physical presence to the casts of such exploitation classics as Tell-Tale Heart (his 1947 screen debut), The Wild One (1953), The Fast And The Furious (1954), The Undead and Rock All Night (both 1957), War Of The Satellites, The Cry Baby Killer and Hot Car Girl (all 1958) and the crucial 1959 quartet of I Mobster, The Wasp Woman, A Bucket Of Blood and Attack Of The Giant Leeches. Then there was Invasion Of The Star Creatures and The Violent And The Damned (both 1962), Attack Of The Mayan Mummy (1964), Curse Of The Stone Hand and Creature Of The Walking Dead (both 1965), The Wild World Of Batwoman aka She Was A Hippy Vampire (1966) and Hell’s Angels On Wheels (1967). Yeah, Bruno got around…

Here he plays “Rich Man”, the sugar daddy who picks up “The Gamin” (Barrett), with the pandering assistance of Richard Barron’s “Evil One”… I think the word “pimp” was probably banned by the Hays Code or something (God knows what Pastor Hays and his office made of the Bunuelian severed hand that scuttles through several scenes of Dementia). As it is, the New York Censorship Board rejected the film for two years on the grounds of its “inhumanity and indecency” (!)

Rescuing “The Gamin” from skid row street hassles and pursuit by a cop who recalls her abusive father (both played by Ben Roseman), “Rich Man” takes her on a date from Hell, culminating in a beatnik jazz club session that describes a queasy crescendo recalling the climax to the mother of all portmanteau horror movies, 1945’s Dead Of Night, resolving itself (or failing to so so) in similarly unsettling fashion.

While Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (another film in which VeSota appeared) renders similar Venice Beach locations as vaguely menacing, this one goes the whole Nightmare Noir bit with distorted Expressionist shots and compositions courtesy of William C. Thompson (raising the barely credible possibility that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space might not even qualify as the most offbeat item on this one eyed cinematographer’s CV). Special mention for the after dark, Dickensian restaging of the protagonist’s abuse / neglectful upbringing in a cemetery.

In retrospect, despite the glowing testimonial of Preston Sturges (yes, the Preston Sturges, who declared Dementia “a Film To Purge Your Libido & Permeate Your Idioplasm!”) it’s hardly surprising that such an avant garde (and dialogue free) effort struggled to find mainstream distribution. The widest (fragmentary) exposure it’s received up till now undoubtedly came via its inclusion as the film-within-a-film in The Blob! (1958), though that movie’s producer Jack H. Harris also released Dementia in an alternative cut retitled Daughter Of Horror (available among the extras here) in 1957.

Harris also tacked on a truly hysterical voice over track, delivered by the young Ed McMahon, whose most impactful contribution on popular culture has been with the infinitely pithier and punchier “Heeeere’s Johnny!” introduction to Johnny Carson’s long running American chat show. Hey, I wonder if that could be worked into a film about somebody slowly losing their marbles…

Other extras, aside from the expected image gallery and trailers (plus Joe Dante’s trailer micro-appraisal) include a short compare compare-and-contrast exercise underlining the extraordinary care the Cohen Film Collection applied in its restoration of such a niche property and (stop me if you’ve heard these words before) a newly recorded audio commentary by Kat Ellinger. There’s also Alone With The Monsters, a kindred spirit, sixteen minute short in which Nazli Nour explores the dying thoughts of a demented woman. In the first pressing only, you’ll also discover a fully illustrated collectors’ booklet with new essays by Ian Schultz and the BFI’s William Fowler and Vic Pratt.

Sit down, make yourself uncomfortable and “enjoy” Dementia…

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: