Aug 21, 2012
Somewhat embarrassingly, I never got around to seeing the phantasmagorical film noir (advertised as a ‘beat-noir’) flick Dementia (1955) written and directed by Bruno VeSota (but often falsely attributed to producer John Parker) until fairly recently. Maybe it was because I got the film mixed up with Francis Ford Coppola’s inferior, early Roger Corman-produced horror flick Dementia 13 (1963) and assumed it was another conventional and equally forgettable 1950s/1960s horror film, but, regardless, I am glad that I actually took the time to view it. Antagonistically transcending the usually fine line between free-form avant-garde art film and bodacious B-movie, Dementia is a rather ridiculously overlooked work that is quite like no other. Originally only available in its butchered cut version (at 56 minutes as opposed to the original 61 minutes) as Daughter of Horror with redundant and artistically proposterous narration by (then-unknown) comedian and game show host Ed McMahon, Dementia is now widely accessible in its original abstract necromantic form. Shot MOS ("Motor Only Sync" aka without synchronous sound) and equipped with an eerie and seductive soundtrack by German-American avant-garde composer and inventor George Antheil and sung by Marni Nixon, Dementia is a strictly cinematic work that has more in common with great films of the silent era than horror films from its own epoch. Quickly forgotten upon its initial 1955 release, Dementia would not gain the cult following it always deserved until the late 1970s, thus earning a (still somewhat marginal) reputation as one of the most strikingly strange and idiosyncratic films ever made. Sharing aesthetic influences from both German expressionism and film noir, but of an especially proto-Lynchian nature in its portrayal of a weird girl in trouble in a viperous seaside post-industrial netherworld, Dementia is a hypnotic hypnagogic journey through one less than cuddly colleen’s afflicted and overwrought mind. Dementia often has a sinister and surreal semblance comparable to Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) – a work noted for its entrancing organ score by Gene Moore and sepulchral, otherworldly essence – but to a more pronounced, penetrating, and perturbing degree. The relentless phantasm realm of Dementia fits in somewhere in between Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1917), F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Curtis Harrington's Night Tide (1961), and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), but one can only get a true aesthetic articulation of the film by actually viewing it.
Dementia begins in the seedy hotel room of the film’s austere anti-heroess aka 'the Gamin' (played by unknown/forgotten actress Adrienne Barrett) who has just awakened from a less than blissful beachside nightmare. Although some reviewers have described this young lady as “sexy” and whatnot, I found her to be quite androgynous in both appearance and affectation as she could have easily played Sal Mineo's role opposite of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Adorned around the cadaverous gal’s neck is a necklace and sphinx-like amulet as if she is an initiate in some sort of arcane occult tradition. Soon after awakening from her somber slumber, the girl grabs a switchblade out of a dresser drawer and leaves the apartment for the shadowy alleys of the menacing metropolis. Encountering a number of curious human creatures on her seemingly aimless but remarkably eventful journey, including a minatory midget, abusive husband, delirious drunk, pestering pimp, and a rich hedonistic fat cat, the girl is clearly stirred and frightened by the less savory elements of the male gender. The girl begins to realize that her past has come back to haunt her when she buys a newspaper from the midget with the headline, “Mysterious Stabbing.” Eventually, the girl is brought to a lonely graveyard somewhat resembling the one featured in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outerspace (1959) by a faceless entity. Incidentally, Dementia cinematographer William C. Thompson would later film Wood’s less than artful 1959 ‘masterpiece’, as well as the cross-dressing horror hack's infamously atrocious works Glen or Glenda (1953) and Night of the Ghouls (1959). While at the graveyard, the daunted debutante recollects the life-shattering night when her abusive father sadistically slaughtered her trashy, trifling mother. The scenic cemetery scene is probably best remembered for appearing in the popular independent sci-fi/horror flick The Blob (1958) during the movie theater sequence when the blob attacks, but it also happens to be one of the most poignant and illuminating moments of Dementia as it reveals the source of the lead anti-protagonist’s debilitating mental sickness; dementia.
Although barely recognized and instantly forgotten upon its original release; and still relatively underrated today, Dementia has gone on to inspire various subsequent cinematic works. Some have argued that the film influenced Orson Welles' nearly immaculate direction of his chimerical mystery masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958). Somewhat fortuitously (or not), the obese fat man featured in Dementia also resembles Welles' repulsive character police Captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. The esoteric hardcore porn flick Bacchanale (1970) directed by the Amero brothers also seems to be heavily inspired by (if not an extremely loose remake of) Dementia. Like Dementia, Bacchanale follows a young girl (this time played by a voluptuous bombshell blonde) as she awakens in her hotel room and wanders pell-mell through the city, henceforth encountering faceless spirits in graveyards and other exceedingly debauched, eccentric, and erratic beings. Also, like Dementia – which features a variety of Kerouac-esque beatniks – Bacchanale is a marginal yet uniquely revealing work of its time, featuring hapless hippies and loose morals that reflect the degenerate zeitgeist of the hyper-hedonic counter-culture movement. Needless to say, Dementia is a decidedly nihilistic work with nil redeeming characters, including the foreordained lead character, thus making it an audacious aberration of 1950s American cinema. Not even the more surly and sardonic works of the so-called “American New Wave” of the late 1960’s to early 1980s can compare to the ever-present apocalyptic and amphibological persuasion of Dementia; a celluloid tribulation of the most terrorizing yet transcendent sort. In 2001, carny noise musician and perennial dilettante Boyd Rice (with the help of Dwid Hellion of the 'metallic punk/hardcore' band Integrity) composed a new score for Dementia and performed it live at the 17th annual L'Etrange Festival, which is unequivocally a comme il faut tribute to a work that was heavily inspired by the more morose films of the silent era; a lamentably lost period of cinema history when image was everything and a live orchestra acted as an accentual ritualistic sound procession of sorts. One can only wonder whether or not a version of the film featuring Rice's score will be released, but I doubt it will add anything to Dementia; a hyperphysical and hallucinatory cinematic expression of hopeless female hysteria.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:21 PM
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