Proto-Slashers #1: “Dementia 13" – 1963


“Little fishies in a brook, Papa’s hanged you on a hook”

Do we agree that “Psycho” is the grandfather of slasher flicks, and that “Halloween” is the film that jump-started the craze during its heyday? If so, that means there was a solid 18 year gap between Hitchcock’s and Carpenter’s flicks, but it doesn’t mean that there weren’t lots of embryonic slashers slicing their way across North America’s drive-in screens during that time. One of these bloody beauties was Francis Ford Coppola’s first feature film as a solo director, “Dementia 13″.

The story goes that Coppola convinced producer Roger Corman to give him a few thousand dollars to shoot a film using cast members and the Irish setting from “The Young Riders”, the film they had been shooting for AIP. Though Coppola’s role on the racing pic was that of a sound technician and not director, Corman agreed as long as Coppola would create a “Psycho” knock-off that used the number 13 in its title; this isn’t so weird considering that AIP was infamous for creating its movie posters first, then making films based on the posters! Following Corman’s stipulations, Coppola quickly hammered out a screenpaly, and the shooting of “Dementia 13″ was underway. Rumour has it, though, that Jack Hill, the director of terrific genre flicks like “Spider Baby”and “Switchblade Sisters”, was called in after production to shoot additional scenes.

So what premise did the 20-something Coppola deliver?

Hiding the fact that her husabnd has recently died, Louise (Luana Anders) visits her in-laws in Ireland, intent on ensuring her place in the Haloran family inheritance. There she finds that Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) and her brothers-in-law, Billy (Bart Patton) and Richard (William Campbell), are haunted by the drowning death of Kathleen, the youngest of the Haloran children, years earlier. Louise starts scheming, but soon an axe murder is hacking through the Haloran family and its associates. It’s up to family doctor Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee) and Richard’s fiancée Kane (Mary Mitchel) to find out just who’s so handy with that axe.

Though the plot of “Dementia 13″ is full of holes, the movie itself is loaded with atmosphere and memorable scenes: the rowboat ride, Louise’s night swim, Lady Haloran’s visit to Kathleen’s playhouse, the groundskeeper’s fox hunt, among others. And let’s face it, slasher flicks are all about suspense and “big scenes”, those moments that either feature gory FX or unforgettable sequences. For a movie released in 1963, “Dementia 13″ is surprisingly graphic, though by 80’s slasher standards, it’s fairly mild. I first caught “D-13″ on the late show when I was about 8 years old way back in the 70’s (my first slasher flick), and it scared the hell out of me. Watching it today, the shocks still have impact, it’s a fun, eerie watch, and a definite link in the chain from Hitchcock to Carpenter. “Dementia 13″ is widely available on a number of budget-priced DVD releases, and it’s a must see for anyone interested in the evolution of the slasher flick.

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About the Author

A Writer/Project Manager at Graphcom Group (an advertising agency) by day, and a freelancer at night, I’ve written, mainly about movies, for Retro, The Buzz, Rue Morgue, and Cathay Pacific’s in-flight entertainment magazine Studio CX. I’m a grad of Humber College’s (Toronto) Film & TV Production program, and I’ve directed and co-written short films, one of which (Florid) won the Viewer’s Choice Award at the 2004 Reel Island Film Festival. I’ve been heard as a movie reviewer and pop culture commentator on CBC Radio, and I’ve edited and contributed scripts and ideas to television productions including My Messy Bedroom and Thrill on the Hill (CBC-TV’s Canada Day Celebration). My movie review cartoon strip And Yet I Blame Hollywood was adapted and animated as 26 two-minute television interstitials for CBC-TV’s late night program ZeD, and I wrote every single stinkin’ last episode.

4 Responses to “ Proto-Slashers #1: “Dementia 13" – 1963 ”

  1. Great discussion of this interesting film. It’s impressive what Coppola achieved at short notice, and I wonder what Jack Hill’s scenes were.

  2. Many inserts to fill out unfinished action scenes, and the entire poacher (not groundskeeper) sequence with Karl Schanzer.

  3. Wow, I’m thrilled that you commented on my post, Mr. Hill. I was just doing a little further research to see if I could discover what scenes you had directed in response to Ross’ post, and lo and behold, you posted the info here. Thanks for filling in the blanks.

  4. Wow. Jack Hill is a god. And it turns out, a nice person for stopping by to post some info. How cool is that?!?

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