By Jeremy Carr.
Francis Ford Coppola’s low-budget, low-key 1963 shocker, Dementia 13, was the first substantial step in the legendary filmmaker’s career. Like other Roger Corman produced features, it was shot on the cheap and in short order, and in most respects, it shows. Sufficiently atmospheric, with ample twists and enough stylistic filler to maintain mild interest during its brief 75-minute runtime, the film has since accrued considerable, frequently undeserved, admiration. Not an awful film, it is also not the early masterpiece many proclaim it to be. More than anything, this B-movie unveiling rides the retrospective coattails of its now-laudable Coppola/Corman credit. All of this is to say that, while Richard LeMay’s 2017 remake of the film is bound to have instant detractors and those who are, perhaps with reason, skeptical about a modern-day revisiting of this familiar terrain, that core reluctance should be comfortably moderated.
Written by Dan DeFilippo, LeMay’s Dementia 13 begins essentially like the original, in the midst of a violent domestic dispute between embittered gold-digger Louise (Ana Isabelle) and her soon-submerged husband, John Haloran (Christian Ryan). After drowning her spouse, and having already hatched a scheme to secure his inheritance, Louise returns to the Haloran castle, where the film picks up two weeks later. Incrementally arriving at the manor, the rest of the Haloran family includes muted, moody matriarch Gloria (Julia Campanelli) and snobby, spiteful daughters Billy (Marianne Noscheze) and Rose (Channing Pickett), along with their respective husbands, the pot-smoking doofus Kane (Ben van Berkum) and the painfully straight-laced Dale (Steve Polites).
Ostensibly there for an annual memorial commemorating the untimely death of young Haloran sibling Kathleen, this bitterly malicious brood obsessess over the estate, and a fortune built on “greed and blood money,” according to Gloria, earned by manufacturing slave clothing. Compounding the preexisting controversy is Louise’s unwelcome presence and John’s mysterious absence; the initial brunt of familial consternation centers on their unexpected and much-disparaged union. As the rest know nothing of the murder (with comments like, “You know how he loves the water,” Louise seems to revel in her secret), their unrelated scorn and rampant derision soon displaces the preliminary homicide. An assembly of emotionally shallow beautiful people – all actors are attractive; none give especially good performances – the Haloran clan is endemic with secrets and lies, melodramatic scheming, and clichéd characterizations. That the castle is revealed to have hidden passageways should surprise no one; this family has progressed surreptitiously their whole life. “Nobody ever said family was easy,” quips Rose in the understatement of the film.
With this confrontational foundation, the Haloran skeletons, straining to break free from the proverbial closet, are but jumping off points for further drama, this time of the supernatural variety. LeMay, whose prior directing credits include LGBT-themed films 200 American (2003), Whirlwind (2007), and Naked As We Came (2012), appears happily at home with the genre, garnishing his interpretation with customary elements of horror: demon masks, an unnerving amount of occasionally animate dolls, shadowy claws that stretch across the wall, and an ax-wielding hooded figure; even the mere fact that the film is set in a castle is remarked upon by two characters, one of whom wonders, “Who has a castle and doesn’t have a TV in the place? Who has a castle?” But the most prominent paranormal component is the ambiguous manifestation of Kathleen’s unsettled ghost, largely unseen to all but Gloria, for whom the spirit is a constant source of solace and torment.
With these gothic, ghost story strokes, DeFilippo and LeMay take the assorted human conflicts (including new ones added, like three goon gunmen who arrive at the manor as part of Louise’s arrangement) and they embellish and enhance the otherwise practical tension. Some of this is commonplace – there’s nothing here we haven’t really seen before – but Dementia 13 has a solid sum of shocks and surprises, and with at least one early, startling death, LeMay maintains interest and suspicion, as well as the unremitting possibility of revelatory action and satisfying misdirection. Most faults are subsequently forgivable and forgettable; until the end, when the film conforms to the hackneyed master plan summary, where the preceding events are spelled out with all the whys and hows, so that even with the mystical bent, the finale is ordinary at its worst. The most impressive and enduring feature of Dementia 13, however, often serving as a pleasant distraction from the narrative lags and bland performances, is the Cornwall, Connecticut location, and the gorgeous cinematography by Paul Niccolls. Sweeping the massive 1,000-acre property, which is ideally ominous and isolated, insular and claustrophobic, Niccolls’ camera coasts through the setting, interiors and exteriors, caressing the site’s natural splendor.
Richard LeMay was unfamiliar with Coppola’s Dementia 13 until DeFilippo brought the picture to his attention – watching the original film before embarking on a remake was obviously a reasonable starting point. But while there are certain unavoidable nods to its precursor, LeMay’s take departs enough from the template to stand on its own, enough that it shouldn’t be hampered by comparative judgements. Like Coppola’s film, the new Dementia 13 is itself no grand triumph of cinematic art, though it is by no means a shoddy retread.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.