Dementia (1953) – Film Review

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Dementia (1953)

Film Review

Director: John Parker
Cast: Adrienne Barrett, Bruno Ve Soto, Ben Roseman
Certificate: 12

by Sarah Morgan

When it comes to cinema, there are few things I enjoy more than finding a real oddity, something rarely seen, that turns out to be a little gem.

dementia film review coverSo, imagine my joy at having Dementia drop through my letterbox recently. Banned in New York for two years in the early 1950s, its greatest claim to fame is that scenes from it appear briefly in a segment shot in a cinema in the original version of 1958’s The Blob.

Around the same time, this wordless 53-minute obscurity was reissued under a new title, Daughter of Horror, and given a pseudo-scientific narration that made it more hilarious than terrifying. Both versions of the film are available on this impressive Blu-ray and DVD release from the BFI.

“Unsettling atmosphere”

The story apparently came in a dream to Adrienne Barrett, the secretary of writer-director John Parker, who then decided to turn it into a short film. Barrett plays the lead character, a troubled young woman who spends a night hooking up with various seedy characters in the skid row area of Los Angeles.

During the same period, she murders her father and a wealthy man, then awakens in her room believing everything that has happened is a figment of her imagination – but is it…?

Dementia reminded me stylistically of Carnival of Souls, Herk Hervey’s genuinely unnerving 1962 chiller. Like Hervey, Parker was a one-time director working on a shoestring budget with largely non-professional actors. He also manages to create a strange, unsettling atmosphere that can be bewildering at times, and yet his work is never less than fascinating.

dementia film review bluray

“Experimental”

Special note should also be made of the experimental soundtrack from George Antheil, which features a vocal performance from Marni Nixon, who’s best known for providing the singing voices of Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Here, she sounds as if she’s become a human theremin.

Roger Corman fans may also recognise Bruno Ve Soto. He pops up here looking all the world like a low rent Orson Welles and featured in 15 Corman films in supporting roles.

Among the special features is a brief introduction to the movie by Gremlins director and all-round horror fan Joe Dante; it’s a shame this couldn’t have been expanded into a short documentary, because I imagine there’s lots more to say and find out about this most curious of productions.

Performances6
Direction7
Screenplay8
Cinematography7
Originality9
Extras7
Special features:
· Presented in Standard Definition and High Definition
· Newly recorded audio commentary on Dementia by film critic and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine, Kat Ellinger
· Daughter of Horror (1957, 55 mins): after being picked up by producer Jack H Harris, Dementia was re-released as Daughter of Horror. Whilst also featuring music without dialogue, Harris made a number of edits and added narration by actor Ed McMahon
· Alone with the Monsters (1958, 16 mins): a study of people’s unconscious cruelty to others, this bold experimental film was directed by Nazli Nour with cinematography by the great Walter Lassally
· Trailers From Hell: Joe Dante on Daughter of Horror (1957/2013, 2 mins)
· Before & After: Restoring Dementia (2020, 3 mins): a series of short clips from Dementia that illustrate the work done by the Cohen Film Collection for their 2015 restoration
· Dementia trailer (2015)
· Daughter of Horror trailer (1957)
· Stills and publicity gallery
Dementia is released on Blu-ray by BFI, £19.99
7.3
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