Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Buried Treasures: Dementia (1955)

There’s a story behind today’s “Overlooked Film.”  Let me tell you a tale.

You may know—and if you don’t, consider this me telling you—that while I relinquished my post as Associate Editor at ClassicFlix back in February 2014, I still maintain a working relationship with CF as the author of their “Where’s That Been?” column.  Each month, the new associate editor Kristen Lopez (or “K-Lo,” as I call her) requests that I submit an essay on what the site describes as “overlooked or underappreciated films from the golden age.”

I had already decided on October’s WTB entry when K-Lo e-mailed me to ask if it would be possible to come up with a horror or scary film to discuss for the column in keeping with Halloween.  I keep a list of titles handy for future WTB entries, and so I floated three movies past her: F.W. Murnau’s The Haunted Castle (1921), G.W. Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (1926)…and an oddity entitled Dementia (1955), which I had read about in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide.  Despite having “haunted” in its title, Haunted Castle is really more murder mystery than horror film…and while Secrets of a Soul is a psychological terror, it might not have been what she had in mind.  We decided to go with Dementia (though I stuck the other two back on the list for future non-Halloween consideration), particularly since the Kino edition also featured the re-released version of Dementia, Daughter of Horror (1957).

As is her custom, my mother started whining at the beginning of October that she wanted to watch horror movies…and since The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ is a bit limited when it comes to the “Universal Horrors” in their library, I arranged on various nights to show the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, etc.  But I really needed to watch Dementia so I could get the review done…and as such, I announced to Mom that we would be watching it—issuing a caveat that this might not be her particular cup of Orange Pekoe.  (I was not disappointed on this score; I’m paraphrasing here, but I believe her reaction when the film was finished was along the lines of “What was that piece of shit?!!”)

As I sat down to compose the review, I sashayed over to the ClassicFlix site for a link to Dementia…and that’s when I learned that they don’t carry the movie.  They’re…kind of funny about reviews of films that they don’t rent or sell (well, they have to move that product); I once submitted a piece I wrote on Paramount’s Aldrich Family movie series that got spiked for that very reason.  (I’m hoping to resurrect it some day at Radio Spirits.)  So I had to call an audible, and since I had scheduled Werewolf of London (1935) to watch that evening I e-mailed K-Lo to let her know of the substitution.  (The review of that movie is here, by the way.)

I didn’t want all that time (admittedly, it was under an hour) spent watching Dementia and hearing Mom kvetch about it to go to waste…so I thought I’d recycle it here for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  In the long run, it’s probably for the best: I don’t know precisely how to describe the film except to tell you that it’s a one-of-a-kind viewing experience.  I also don’t know if Dementia could stand the scrutiny of a second viewing because to be honest…it’s not a particularly good movie.  But that doesn’t keep it from being an interesting one.

The events in Dementia unfold like a literal nightmare.  A woman (Adrienne Barrett) identified in the movie credits as “The Gamin” leaves her seedy hotel room to walk the desolate streets of an unidentified city.  In the process, she meets up with a man who pimps her out to another (Bruno VeSota), a wealthy swell who’s chauffeured around in a black limousine.  As the two of them head toward a destination of the rich man’s apartment, The Gamin has visions of her tumultuous former life with her parents, set against the backdrop of a cemetery.  She’s also aware of a newspaper headline that predicts a murder will be committed that evening…is it a portent of events to come, or just a coinky-dink?

Dementia sprung from the ambitious mind of John J. Parker, the son of a family who owned a chain of theatres.  Parker had a bit more motivation beyond just distributing other people’s movies—he wanted to make them on his own, and one of his first projects was a thirteen-minute short entitled Citizen Clute (1951), devised to be a TV pilot starring legendary character veteran Chester Clute.  Citizen played on a double bill with Thunder on the Hill (1951) at Portland’s United Artists Theatre…conveniently a Parker-owned theatre, of course.  (The pilot was not picked up by any of the networks.)

When you have money, you’d be surprised at how much pull you can exert in any industry—and such was the case with John J.; he was able to secure an office inside Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood and start what would become his production company (J.J. Parker Productions, Inc.) and his only directorial effort (Dementia).  His secretary, Adrienne Barrett (who plays “The Gamin”), provided the grist for what was initially a ten-minute short by describing a bizarre dream she experienced.  Parker enlisted the services of B-movie standby Bruno VeSota to appear in the silent short, which would be filmed on location in Venice, CA.  (Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the same decrepit buildings and columned walkways stand in for the border town of Los Robles in Orson Welles’ later Touch of Evil [1958].)

The short was really produced to entice investors into making a feature-length film…and Parker hit a snag on this front when the only interested party turned out to be his mother, Hazel.  (His dad had the good fortune to kick it before his son hit him up for cash) Soldiering on, Parker (and VeSota, according to the actor) directed Dementia on leased sets in Hollywood and enlisted the services of cinematographer William C. Thompson.  Thompson’s resume included classics such as Maniac (1934), Glen or Glenda? (1953) and the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)…so I think you people can see where this is headed.  (I wonder if Thompson ever had business cards printed up that read “Bad movies a specialty”?)

Once shooting was completed, Dementia was submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright in December of 1953.  The film had also been submitted to the New York Censor Board (in October), and the budding filmmaker would soon learn that dealing with the LOC was much easier than tangling with those people who oversee morality.  The New York folks turned him down repeatedly (Parker submitted Dementia a total of ten times) for what they felt was the movie’s pungent content—the movie touches on such taboo subjects as prostitution, adultery, incest, drug addiction and police corruption.  To satisfy the demands of the censors, Parker would have had to conceivably eliminate every frame of the movie.  One of the censors described Dementia thusly:

This six-reeler is a cinematographic attempt at the pictorial translation of some notions engendered by a sick brain.  The attempt has produced a film which overflows with horror, hopelessness, strong sadism, violent acts of terror, and outbursts of panic.  Its characters, who all move about like the vagrant phantasms of dreams, do not speak.  The sound track is nevertheless alive with a line of musical commentary ranging from sour lyricism to noisy pathos…

The fascinating production (and censorship) history of Dementia is included as an extra in Kino-Lorber’s 2000 DVD release of the movie—I’ve barely scratched the surface here.  It did eventually play to the public (in a New York art house, double-billed with a short on Pablo Picasso), but is probably better known in its 1957 re-release entitled Daughter of Horror (also on the Kino disc).  This version features narration from Ed McMahon, and it was all I could do to keep from cracking Alpo jokes when I unspooled it (“You…you out there—do you know what HORROR is?”).

You know me well enough by now that I would never lie to you unless I stood to benefit rather handsomely from a financial standpoint…so let me say simply that Dementia is not a particularly good movie.  (I’d avoid Daughter of Horror at all costs, to be frank.)  But it’s a movie well worth checking out at least once for the simple reason that no movie title better describes its contents than this one: it’s a paranoiac stumble through menacing forbidden-city landscapes, with all the logic of a bizarre fever dream.  (Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk memorably described its “beat” atmosphere as “a horror film in the vein of Jack Kerouac.”)

Dementia features an unbilled turn by little person Angelo Rossitto as the newspaper vendor; you might recognize the actor from Freaks (1932) and the exploitation flick Child Bride (1938), and apart from VeSota (“the poor man’s Orson Welles”) Angelo’s probably the best-known thespian in this.  The (always reliable) IMDb lists Jonathan “Little Shop of Horrors” Haze and comedian Shelley Berman in the cast…but I wasn’t able to spot them.  Jazz legend Shorty Rogers (and his Giants) are recognizable; they’re the combo playing in that nightclub-from-hell toward the end of the film.  And the female doing the shouty-singing on the soundtrack is Marni Nixon (well, she was married to Ernest Gold at the time—Gold was the musical director and orchestrator), later the singing voice of non-vocalists Deborah Kerr (The King and I), Natalie Wood (West Side Story), and Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady).

After watching Dementia, I was able to understand that it provided the inspiration for a long-ago Saturday Night Live sketch (from the show’s early years) in which a woman continues to hear similar Marni Nixon-singing on the soundtrack of her life and is finally able to track down its source…another woman singing into a studio microphone.  If you enjoy watching movies that are a bit off the beaten path, you might want to give this one a look.

3 comments:

KC said...

“the poor man’s Orson Welles”--Yes, perfect way to describe that guy! Love all the background information you shared. It's true that it isn't a very good film, but it's entertaining.

Todd Mason said...

I reviewed this one early on...it has an odd conviction, doesn't it? And quite a score.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Todd decreed:

I reviewed this one early on...it has an odd conviction, doesn't it? And quite a score.

As bad as this movie is...there's just something mesmerizing about it.