At Haloran Castle, no-one is safe, but are they menaced by a ghost or an axe murderer? The question is posed by Francis Ford Coppola's first feature film, 1963's Dementia 13, a very low budget unabashed knock-off of Psycho produced by Roger Corman. Despite some conspicuous mediocre elements imposed by Corman after seeing the first cut, the film really is much more than a low-rent Psycho and there's plenty of Coppola's talent already on display in this moody thriller with some very nice performances.
The first half of the film is structured like Psycho with a young, pretty blonde woman alone, trying to get away with stealing a fortune, her guilt complicating the subtext of her eventual encounter with a murderer. In this case, Louise, played with engaging sharpness by Luana Anders, witnesses her husband's death unfortunately before he's had time to get his mother to put Louise in her will, apparently the whole reason Louise married him.
This opening scene takes place on a rowboat, shot fascinatingly in a black void, giving the sequence a surreal nightmare quality that's augmented by shots of the dead man underwater dissolving into the ghoulish paintings shown during the opening credits.
With Louise's husband, John (Peter Reed), flatly accusing Louise of marrying him for money shortly before his death, the stark background seems a reflection of unvarnished, amoral human compulsion. The film is set and shot in Ireland but Coppola makes little use of the landscape and scenery apart from exteriors of the manor used for Castle Haloran. Much of the film has a very interior feel further emphasised by its high contrast black and white cinematography.
People underwater is something that keeps coming back, too, with the film's most visually fascinating sequence involving Louise stripping down to her underwear to plant several dolls tied together in the bottom of a pond at the castle. Again, this scene seems to have the character placed in the middle of an almost featureless void.
There is a bit of a continuity error as Louise's underwear changes colour once she's underwater but this isn't as bad as the boom mike's shadow falling over two people in one of the scenes inserted by another director, Jack Hill, hired by Corman.
In the second half of the film, basically performing Martin Balsam's function in Psycho, Patrick Magee appears as Dr. Caleb, the Haloran family doctor. He takes it upon himself to investigate the series of axe murders that have interrupted a plot thread about the ghost of a little girl who died seven years earlier. Magee, as usual, is a fascinating actor to watch with his series of subtly bizarre facial ticks.
In addition to a lame sequence involving an over the top, comic relief poacher, Corman's main contribution to the film seems to have been dubbing redundant voice over narration to a few scenes. But the film still works quite well as a slightly surreal, sensational murder mystery. The climax, thanks in large part to Magee, is a much weirder than what must have looked like a fairly typical revelation of the murderer's identity in the script.
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