Dementia (1955 aka Daughter of Horror 57min)
Director/Writer – John Parker
Cinematography – William C. Thompson
Music – George Antheil
I’m sure the 50’s hep-cats and ‘seasoned’ film-noir enthusiasts among you will already know of this film. Nevertheless for a greenhorn like myself, I find it damn near impossible to simply watch something like Dementia and not say a few words about it; even if it is just to confirm, through the reader’s feedback, whether or not I’m clueless as to what defines art, missing the point all together, or that I’m simply a weirdo!
Dementia (or as it was later changed to: Daughter of Horror) is a very stylish and strange short film (ca. 57 mins) from deep within the archives of the 50’s avant-garde b-movies. In fact, most movie-buffs may know it more as the film being watched in the cinema, during that famous scene in the 50’s cult-classic, The Blob, rather than a movie of any cinematic significance. It is believed that it was Jack H. Harris, producer of The Blob, who eventually bought the film from Parker and added the narration, renaming the movie Daughter Of Horror. This would make complete sense as Harris could then feature it in The Blob without hindrance. And the added narration, which can be heard in the background during The Blob’s famous cinema scene, serves well to intensify the suspense as The Blob approaches the screaming kids. Even the name ‘Daughter of Horror’ seems like it was added with The Blob in mind, as a poster for ‘Daughter of Horror’, and not ‘Dementia’, can also be seen for a split second during that scene.
This mostly ‘silent’, black and white film opens with a high-angle, night-time shot of a neon-lit street, when, after being invited by the narrator to come with him, ”into the tormented, haunted, half-lit night of the insane”, we are drawn slowly through an open window into a young lady’s bedroom, á la Orson Welles. On the bed lies the sleeping beauty squirming and clutching her bed-sheet tightly. Is she having a nightmare… or an erotic dream? Of this the audience is kept guessing, and from here on in, the tone is set for a private view into the young lady’s twisted and perverse psyche. After wakening from her dream-state, she takes a flick-knife from the drawer and ventures out onto the streets, where she encounters all forms of low-lives, debauchery and sexual depravity, all tied together by hallucination sequences that even have the viewer questioning ‘what is reality/ what is fantasy?’.
Although the film has strong ‘noirish’ elements (lighting, street scenes, atmosphere etc), it’s intrinsically expressionist in nature. Very reminiscent of works by German expressionist film-maker, Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). Though I’m sure French Impressionist aficionados will argue with this. And they would have every right to, as the film (whether intentional or not) also pays homage to the early, experimental works of the great Luis Buñuel. Either way, this will put into context for you, that this isn’t your average Sunday-afternoon matinee, but rather a performance art concept masqueraded as a film-noir. It also fits into the horror bracket. Although as a horror it struggles to hit its mark. Throw in some very jazzy underground scenes featuring the legendary West Coast jazz ensemble, Shorty Rogers and His Giants, (which along with the narrators voice and a some sound effects are the only sounds you hear, as the film has no spoken dialogue from the actors whatsoever) and you have yourselves a compelling and ambitious ‘Art-Noir’ film (eventually favouring this term over ‘Beatnik-Noir’!) that needs to be seen to be appreciated.
For those brave enough to give Dementia a chance, and once you get over the initial feeling that your watching an Ed Wood movie, you’ll be pleasantly surprised as to how skilfully director John Parker manages to pull off a project which, on paper, you’d swear was doomed from the start. Personally, I loved Dementia. But like I said at the beginning of this review, maybe I’m just a weirdo!
Alan Fassioms writes on film noir, expressionist cinema, and obscure silent films at his blog Stranger on the 3rd Floor.