Saturday, 17 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: Dementia [The "Daughter of Horror" Cut] (1955)

Director: John Parker
Screenplay: John Parker
Cast: Adrienne Barrett (as The Gamin); Bruno VeSota (as Rich Man); Ben Roseman (as Law Enforcer/Father); Richard Barron (as Evil One); Ed Hinkle (as Butler)

Synopsis: Shot without any dialogue - barring narration by Ed McMahon in the Daughter of Horror cut that was released - Dementia is a psychodrama following a young woman only known as The Gamin (Barrett) who is stuck between reality and hallucination inducing insanity, the alleyways and streets of Venice, California around her small apartment at night a phantasmagoric odyssey. It'll involve her being enticed to follow a rich man (VeSota) to spend some time with him, committing a murder she has to cover up, a journey with a faceless being a suit into a graveyard to see her late parents, and the crowded environments and jazz clubs becoming more and more oppressive until the faces of policeman are the same as her father's and the suspicion that everyone is after her grows

Dementia is a fascinating curiosity I've stumbled across, one which regardless of which cut you view has no dialogue to speak of at all, expressing everything that happens in the nightmarish journey for the unstable protagonist entirely through the visual content and a score that mixes the avant-garde composer George Antheil with jazz musician Shortey Rogers. For the most part, it's a film noir that has been allowed to decay to the point of festering, a monochrome visual palette where the blacks are the blackest possible and even the colour white is harsh at view. Everyone is a cliché of the genre taken to the extreme, from the rotund rich man who takes the protagonist up to his pad for paid sex to the cop on the street not only stopping a person from mugging her but beating him close to death. The mood is claustrophobic to the point a direct link to Freaks (1932), by coincidence, stands out more in having Angelo Rossitto in a brief role as a newspaper seller on the darkened street. The film also got into trouble with the New York Board of Censors, censored for final release, but what was left is still exceptionally strong for a fifties film in all the implicit references, from domestic abuse to off-camera limb dismemberment. It's a grubby, dank looking film that is both clearly artistic with its presentation but feels lurid too with its dreamlike plotting.

With a protagonist who is already compromised, possibly behind a murder already before the film starts and carrying a flick-knife with her all the time, the world around her is even more out-of-whack. Starting from the aftermath of a domestic abuse incident she passes by in her apartment complex with concern, the oddly named "The Gamin" we follow as viewers goes through an increasingly delirious series of events that weave together regardless of the lack of reality created as a result of this. The film touches the horrific in terms of the paranoia felt by the protagonist, like in Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial (1962), or Touch of Evil (1958) for that matter in the same heightened tone, where the world around her exists completely out of her control. The only time the film becomes straight ahead horror is an abrupt yet appropriately sudden trip within herself into another reality, where the aforementioned faceless man in the suit he guides with a lantern in his hands to her parents' graves, her life and their sins acted out on the grass as if it's a theatrical performance. Even when it returns back to the film noir environments afterwards, this is just the beginning of the genre mashing fully taking form in a hellish way. Visual flourishes that feel like they're indebted to the type of intentionally exaggerated content of silent films start to appear, and once it's all finally over it leads to a twist ending that, rather than being a disappointment, feels like an exclamation point for the fact Dementia has been a chaotic mass of images from the first minute of the film onwards.

Technical Details:
The film is carried forward by its score, one that switches from minimalistic female vocals to breezy jazz. The result works perfectly well, feeding into the mood of Dementia as a b-movie that doesn't feel like any others, part avant-garde movie in its own right as much a genre work.

The version I viewed of the film, as dubbed in the title, was the alternative cult that was released in American cinemas renamed Daughter of Horror, which had new narration over it by Ed McMahon. The additional narration is unbelievably camp and energised. In some ways it's inappropriate but also perfect for the film at the same time, Mcmahon suitably deranged and mannered for the tone of the film. His opening monologue for the film setting up the world is so ripe and exaggerated it stands out as a highlight in fact for me.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic/Mindbender
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
With cinematography by William C Thompson, the same man who shot Ed Wood Jr.'s Glen or Glenda (1953), Dementia is a magnificent oddity, the type I hope to find for this blog stuck entirely in its own genre. Film noir archetypes are clashed together until they become chipped of everything but the most primal of images, the environments they're in as distorted. The film already sets the ball going for its tone with a dream the protagonist has where she is hit by a sea wave she is superimposed in front of, only becoming more unconventional from then on. The lack of dialogue has a drastic effect on the content, forcing you to sink into an aesthetic that mixes an underground film with a poverty row b-picture, the expressions of the actors and the ways scenes are depicted exaggerated in the same way you see in German Expressionist movies.

Personal Opinion:
Dementia is a film I've still trying to get a grip on, really requiring the viewing of the original cut without the narration to digest it all. It's the only film made by its director, and it feels like it abruptly materialised into existence, going to take another viewing or so to adjust to the viewing experience and its alien tone. It reminds me of a film I need to badly revisit, Carnival of Souls (1962), another oddity of old American genre cinema that showed the tenacity of people to create a movie, one as here that is completely of its own type. For any reader, it's an absolute recommendation as an unconventional film, the type covered on this site which is as much a surprise discovery for me as it would be for anyone interested in it.

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