Dementia DVD

Daughter of Horror

John Parker was a rich playboy who had a dream to make a movie. He had it in his blood, as his father operated a large theater chain out of Seattle. His pedigree got him an office at Goldwyn Studios, but no further. His secretary Adrienne Barrett had a dream as well, something about a murder by an insane woman. Parker decided to film the dream as an expressionistic 10-minute short, with a dream-like quality enforced by an absence of dialogue. He hired Chicago actor Bruno Ve Sota, who had just arrived in Hollywood, to co-star with Barrett.

The short was then used to drum up funds for a feature version. An investor was finally found: Parker’s mother.

As we open, zooming through a painted backdrop, a “Gamin” dreams in a cheap hotel room. On the beach, waves overwhelm her. She wakes, and prepares to go out for the evening, fetching her switchblade from the dresser.

If the film looks a lot like Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, it’s no accident. Both films were shot by the same photographer, William C. Thompson, who also shot Wood’s other ’50s epics (Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space), features for Dwain Esper (Maniac, Tomorrow’s Children), and whose career stretched back to 1914’s Absinthe.

The Gamin shows her guilt early on, wary of a policeman arresting a wife beater below. Outside, she buys a paper from little Angelo Rossitto, Hollywood’s famous dwarf newsvendor, who had played roles in everything from Freaks to Dracula vs. Frankenstein. The headline screams about a “mystery stabbing”.

A drunk accosts the Gamin in an alley. She laughs as her rescuer, a smiling “Law Enforcer” (Ben Roseman), beats the drunk savagely. Then she meets up with a “procurer” — billed as the “Evil One” (Richard Barron) — who hires her to escort the fat Rich Man (Ve Sota) in his fancy car. The pair hit the nightclubs around town together.

Barrett is surprisingly good playing out her own dream. Neither too pretty nor too plain to be believable in the role, she emotes well and provides a number of expressive tricks that support her state of madness. Ve Sota is, as always, a solid professional.

During the car ride, the Gamin’s vision is revealed: a graveyard scene where a faceless man with a lantern shows her parents’ graves, beyond which we see scenes from her sordid past home life. Father (Ben Roseman again) was a drunk who beat her. Mother (Lucille Howland) was a cheating bitch tramp. Pop shoots Mom, then Gamin stabs Pop. Not the usual Saturday Evening Post cover.

We arrive at the Rich Man’s penthouse in a gorgeous building (the Bradbury?). The front room is dominated by nude statues. The Rich Man plays the piano. The Gamin offers a drink and a seduction, but the Fat Man is distracted by the arrival of a big chicken dinner. He wolfs it down greedily, disgusting her (a gaff: Ve Sota’s wedding ring appears and disappears in his close-ups). Reminding her of the cash promised her, the Rich Man moves in to kiss her. The Gamin stabs him with her switchblade and pushes him out the window, the body plummeting among fluttering bills.

Running to the street below, she’s shocked to find her necklace medallion clutched in the Rich Man’s dead hand. Faceless witnesses stand about like mannequins. Unable to wrest it from his grasp, she saws off the hand with her blade.

The smiling Law Enforcer is always watching. He gives chase in a police car. Running, she leaves the hand in the basket of a terrified flower girl (Jebbie Ve Sota).

The Evil One saves her, pulling her down to a basement jam session. For some unknown reason, the tuba player isn’t wearing pants. The Evil One tosses an evening gown and the Gamin is suddenly wearing it, ready to sing with the band. Other characters from her recent experience (or hallucination?) join the party. Some seem drugged, drunk, or driven to a lustful frenzy by the music.

The haunting score was by George Antheil, a well-known avant-garde composer of the period. It features vocal stylings by Marni Nixon, who later became known for dubbing the singing voices for many big stars. Though Shorty Rogers and his Giants play in jazz club scenes, Parker was unable to buy rights to all the pieces they play, so Antheil’s music continues for part of these scenes.

The Law Enforcer appears, and collects a payoff. The crowd laughs and points accusing fingers at her. She sees a cop at the window, holding the Rich Man’s smiling corpse. He waves his bloody stump at her and laughs.

She wakes again in her hotel room. But how much of her nightmare is a product of her dementia, and how much is real?

Upon completion, the New York censor board rejected the picture, calling it “indecent” and “inhuman”. A New York psychiatrist condemned the picture, saying it might provoke dementia in the minds of viewers. A doctor from the California Institute of Psychoanalysis held the opposite view. He held that watching horror films will only influence those already psychotic, and warned Parker against exploiting the film by advertising it as a madness-inducer. Times haven’t changed much.

Parker then tried to get Universal to pick up the film, but was unsuccessful. But film historian Herman Weinberg had an independent firm pick up the film rights a year later, and resubmitted it to the censor board, which had grown more lenient by 1955. A cut version passed and was given an art house run in major cities, on a double bill with a documentary about Picasso. Downbeat magazine called it “the first foreign film ever made in Hollywood”.

In 1957, Jack H. Harris, producer of Dinosaurus! and The 4D Man, picked up the rights for his Exploitation Productions. A recut version of Dementia finally made it into theaters, under the title Daughter of Horror, with spooky narration provided by Philadelphia TV announcer Ed McMahon, years before his fame on The Tonight Show. By then, only a few of the more gruesome shots needed to be trimmed. If you’ve ever seen the film at all, this is the version you’ve seen, as the original has been sitting in a vault all these years waiting for Kino to resurrect it.

Or you may have seen bits of it another way. Harris (illegally) used scenes from Daughter of Horror in the theater scenes in The Blob — a midnight shock feature accompanied, or so the marquee said, by Bela Lugosi’s spook show. I always wondered if Bela got eaten by the Blob backstage.

The trailer for Daughter of Horror (included on the disc) sells it as “the strangest motion picture you have ever seen”, and for once, the pitch isn’t lying. Dementia is the perfect film of a nightmare, raw and shocking (for its time) in its sexuality and violence. It plays like a sleazy but arty B-movie, like Dance Hall Racket as filmed by Orson Welles. The Rich Man character looks like an alternate universe Citizen Kane. Indeed, Welles would use many of the same Venice locations for his Touch of Evil a few years later.

But who was the real auteur behind Dementia? Parker was surely the initial driving force, but Bruno Ve Sota later claimed to have co-written and directed most of the picture. This certainly makes sense, as Ve Sota already carried a heavy track record, having directed many plays for stage, radio and television by that time. Having arrived in Hollywood the previous year, he’d already played character roles in a dozen films. He would go on to direct 3 films: Female Jungle, Invasion of the Star Creatures, and The Brain Eaters, which at times have the same kind of noir look. Ve Sota became a familiar face as a character actor in films (A Bucket of Blood, Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Haunted Palace, Wild World of Batwoman and many others) and television (Bonanza, Kojack), often cast as a bartender.

I vote for cinematographer Thompson as the main provider of visual poetry, however. The compositions are more consistent with the seedy chiaroscuro of his other work.

Kino International has included both versions on this excellent DVD release. Both cuts are a bit scratchy around reel changes, but otherwise look beautiful. Daughter of Horror is a shade darker and sometimes bumps a bit around the edited scenes. Kino includes a generous collection of production stills on the disc, as well as a gallery culled from press book material. There is also a fine essay section that details the history of the production.

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