Dementia 13/The Haunted and the Hunted (1963) **½
By now, I figure most of you have caught on to my low-grade obsession with what I call the prehistory of the slasher movie. Well, I think I just found another important fossil. It is well known that Dementia 13 (The Haunted and the Hunted in the UK) was among the earliest movies Francis Ford Coppola directed all by himself (he had previously done a fair amount of second-unit work on other Corman projects like The Terror), but what is not as widely realized is that this movie was almost certainly a seminal influence on the gialli which would be made in vast numbers in Italy beginning the year after its release. Though it begins with a greed-motivated plot to drive an already somewhat dotty rich woman completely insane, it soon progresses far beyond that into a spree of serial axe-murder in which literally everybody should be considered a suspect. Shoot it in color and throw in some gore, and it could have been an early Bava film.
It’s late at night, and for whatever reason, John Halloran (Peter Read) wants to take his dinky little rowboat out for a spin on the lake abutting his property. John would prefer to do this alone, but his wife, Louise (Luana Anders, of Night Tide and The Pit and the Pendulum), insists on coming along— evidently she’s not done arguing with him over the will his mother recently unveiled. You can see why, too; it’s quite plain that Louise has only married John for his family’s money, yet his mother’s new will bequeaths everything she owns— everything— to charity in the name of somebody named Kathleen, of whom Louise has never even heard. Louise thinks John ought to be able to prevail upon the old lady to change her mind, and divide the estate among the children like any sensible fat-cat would, and one gets the feeling she’s been harping on the subject all evening long at the very least. Unfortunately for Louise, though, her husband has always had a weak heart, and she happens to be provoking him at the very same time that he is engaging in strenuous cardiovascular exercise. John has a heart attack and dies right there in the rowboat, leaving Louise with a conundrum of epic proportions. Her only legitimate claim to any share of the Halloran fortune was through John, and as things stand now, even that claim would do her no good. The only thing for it, or so it seems to Louise, is for her to dump John’s body over into the lake, forge a letter from him to his family claiming urgent business in New York, and then get on a plane to Ireland so that she can work on convincing Lady Halloran (Ethne Dunne, from The Mutations) to alter the offending will herself.
Louise isn’t alone in coming to Castle Halloran. The mysterious Kathleen was Lady Halloran’s youngest daughter, who died six years ago at the age of thirteen, and the whole family is even now converging on the ancestral castle for the annual memorial ceremony. Said family consists of John’s two brothers, Richard (William Campbell, from Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Blood Bath) and Billy (Bart Patton, of Zots! and THX 1138), together with Richard’s fiancee, Kane (Mary Mitchell, from Panic in the Year Zero! and Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told). This is not at all a happy family, even before you factor in a scheming in-law like Louise. Richard looks down on Billy, who allows himself to be entirely dominated by Lady Halloran, and he is locked in constant battle with his mother as well— the issue there is that Richard refuses to let Mom run his life the way she runs his little brother’s. Lady Halloran, meanwhile, despises Kane, and would like nothing better than to break up her relationship with Richard. And finally, Billy— who was born only a couple of years ahead of Kathleen, and was the girl’s principal playmate during her short life— has been keeping it to himself for the past six years that he was on the scene when she drowned in the backyard pond, and he may even have had something to do with the girl falling into the water in the first place. Needless to say, nobody but Mother much appreciates the morbid annual ritual of the memorial ceremony, but neither does any of them have the nerve to try putting a stop to it.
Lady Halloran’s obsession with her dead daughter gives Louise an idea regarding how she might yet get her hands on a share of the family fortune. The bereaved woman already half-believes Castle Halloran to be haunted by Kathleen’s spirit, and Louise thinks she knows how to convince her hostess completely. Once she’s done that, she could then persuade Lady Halloran that Kathleen would prefer that she take care of her own with the inheritance, rather than giving away the entire estate to people with no ties to the family. Her plan of action formulated, Louise sneaks into Kathleen’s old bedroom and steals a bunch of her most distinctive toys. Afterwards, she goes out to the pond under cover of darkness, and dives in with the stolen playthings, a heavy crescent wrench, and several strands of twine which she has daubed with acid. The idea is to tie the dolls to the wrench, hide them in the murky water, and then wait for the acid to work its mojo on the string; tomorrow the toys will bob to the surface of the pond, and voila— instant supernatural manifestation. Louise is in for a shock, however. While planting the dolls, she spies something on the bottom of the pond which had been concealed from the surface: a sort of shrine, the centerpiece of which is the perfectly preserved body of Kathleen Halloran! Louise wigs out, and flees the pond as quickly as she’s able to. But no sooner does she have her head above water than some unknown person begins chopping at it with an axe. Louise’s plan to drive Lady Halloran off the deep end may yet have its intended effect, but the schemer herself isn’t going to be around to enjoy the fruits of her labors.
As it happens, the dolls’ appearance in the pond has the effect of bringing all the simmering craziness in the Halloran family to a boil. Lady Halloran goes nearly catatonic when she sees her daughter’s toys floating in the water where she drowned six years ago yesterday, and that brings family physician Dr. Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee, from Demons of the Mind and Die, Monster, Die!) into the picture. Caleb orders the pond drained, and thereby uncovers the secret shrine— although the girl’s body is mysteriously no longer in it by that time. That in turn leads, in a roundabout way, to a veritable explosion of homicide within and around the family, as whichever one of them made that shrine takes ever more drastic action to keep the secret of his or her madness from coming out altogether.
Dementia 13 has developed a pretty lofty reputation in the years since its release, largely, or so I imagine, because of its status as a small, minor project from a big, important filmmaker. And indeed the movie does bear the marks of an emerging talent. There are a number of extremely well-shot scenes, and Louise’s discovery of the shrine in the pond deserves to be counted as one of the high points of early-60’s American horror cinema. The film’s giallo sensibility— fully a year before the giallo had been invented— comes as a fascinating shock, and adds an unexpected second layer of historical interest. By any honest assessment, however, Dementia 13 is hardly the overlooked classic that it has sometimes been touted as. The problem (and again we see a resemblance to subsequent Italian horror films) is that Coppola’s script is nowhere near the equal of his direction. While aiming for mystery and suspense, he achieves mostly lurching disjointedness. The impression I get is that Coppola didn’t quite have a handle on how much he was really telling his audience; in some scenes, he acts as if we know things we don’t, while in others he treats points that have long since been established by implication as major revelations. Dialogue is another major weakness, especially the dialogue given to Dr. Kaleb and Arthur (Ron Perry), the would-be poacher who is Billy Halloran’s great nemesis— although matters are certainly not helped by Perry’s atrocious fake Irish accent. In short, Dementia 13 needs to be recognized for what it is. Go in expecting the cult classic that its reputation would seem to suggest, and you’re likely to be disappointed. What you’ll be getting instead is a promising beginning to a career, but not much more than that.