Dementia 13 / My Bloody Valentine
October 2, 2018
Francis Ford Coppola
1 Hr., 15 Mins.
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
o through the early filmography of the director Francis Ford Coppola and it, expectedly, reads like the résumé of someone who was chipper enough to take any job offered to him. From 1962’s Tonight for Sure, a cheapo nudie-cutie made with the help of the soon-to-be exploitation heavyweight Jack Hill, to The Bellboy and the Playgirls (1962), which wasn’t anything other than a recut version of a German sex comedy, it is evident to me that Coppola, like any young professional (he was enrolled in UCLA's film school at that point), was eager and hungry for a break.
This was also evident to Roger Corman, the B-movie showman emerging as a cultural force at the time. Seeing potential in Coppola, who had proven himself able to direct, write, and edit cheaply and enthusiastically, Corman hired him on as an assistant, then as a dialogue director, an associate producer, and a sound man (though not at the same time) on three other projects for his production company, American International Pictures. All would be completed and then distributed in a period lasting from the late summer of 1962 to June, 1963.
While on the set of the second movie made during that window, 1963’s The Young Racers, Corman, forever looking for a hit, asked if Coppola would be interested in writing and directing a horror movie using leftover funds. Corman might as well have formulated the question as a demand: Coppola was so excited about the offer, he wrote a story draft, which was basically a knocking-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s still-eminent Psycho (1960), in less than 24 hours.
After reading what Coppola had scribed, Corman was convinced that his protégé was, in fact, fit for the job, especially after the latter animatedly described a blood-soaked murder scene that would act as the film’s centerpiece. He threw in $20,000 — as did an additional producer who sought to own the in-the-making feature’s English rights, unbeknownst to Corman — and sent the fledgling writer-director to Ireland with a farrago of affordable actors. The picture would be called Dementia 13 and would be released (after a post-production rumpus) in September, 1963. It was, essentially, Coppola’s real directorial debut. It's strange to watch the film now, considering what one’s brain might conjure when the name “Coppola” is brought up in casual conversation. It is a movie of remarkable economy and plainness, contrasting with the maximalist, august movies Coppola would go on to make in the 1970s. As noted by the critic Emanuel Levy, you cannot tell that this feature was made by a filmmaker who would go on to be one of the most significant in the history of cinema. But nonetheless detectable is a very real eagerness that mimics the zeal Coppola would be able to better convey through bigger budgets and casts in the coming years.
Dementia 13 is a dreary, compact movie, and contains none of the pulp-sploshed exhilaration one might feel while watching another slasher movie. But that’s one of the reasons the movie is intriguing: it doesn’t take relish in its violence, and doesn’t take pleasure in its unscrupulous, darkened story, even though it was marketed as a movie that might. It's concerned with a guileful blonde named Louise (Luana Anders) who heads up to her husband’s (Peter Read) family’s rickety estate to worm her way into the matriarch’s will. Trouble is is that the husband has just died of a heart attack — though Louise tells his family that he’s just away on business, therefore still enabling her access — and that there is an ax murderer stalking the premises.
Dynamic scenes are scattered in Dementia 13, from its opening to, spoiler, the watery middle-act killing of the shameless Louise. And the tiny budget, in a fashion only analogous to pre-Code horror, enhances the phantasmagoria. Because the photography is fuzzy and dim, the shadows are poised to engulf. But unsurprisingly, given how cheaply and quickly it was shot, Dementia 13 comes to mostly be an adequately made exercise. The investment on Coppola’s part, though, is obvious — a characteristic that would patently get him far. (Three years later, his family comedy You’re a Big Boy Now would become a favorite at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globes.
he Canadian slasher movie My Bloody Valentine (1981) seems a successor to Dementia 13, though not in part due to a similar budget and scope: the film was made for $2.3 million and is built on a trickier story. The resemblance has most to do with the way that it, too, never much seems to revel in its extensive violence, even though there is, famously, a lot of it. (The gore was so pervasive than the MPAA legendarily cut nine minutes out of the feature for its theatrical release.) Also similar are the ways the story
develops bleakly, and how the movie, in spite of not exactly adding anything new to an easily enervated subgenre, is skillfully made.
It's certainly fortifying compared to the previous year’s Friday the 13th (1980), which uncomfortably seemed to find satisfaction in frightfully chopping up powerless teenagers. The film is set in Valentine Bluffs, a fictional mining town that, by several locals, is considered cursed. Years ago, a tragic accident left an ineradicable mark on the area. Then, a pair of supervisors left several miners, unaccompanied, in the shafts to attend an annual Valentine’s Day dance. Having neglected to check the methane levels before prematurely departing, an explosion ensued, and trapped a number of men in the mines. No one survived, except for a man named Harry (Peter Cowper), who resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
Understandably, he was irreversibly rattled. But before heading to the nearby sanitarium, he, gelidly, served revenge, killing his one-time supervisors and vowing that more attacks would come about if there were to be another Valentine’s Day dance. My Bloody Valentine takes place several years after the first set of attacks; many of the younger townsfolk either do not know about the incident or look at it, and Harry, as if it were part of an urban legend. As such, it is decided early on, by the mayor, that Valentine’s Day will again, after so long, be celebrated with a big soirée. By now, Harry very well could have gotten over it, right? Not so — immediately after the announcement, killings, perpetrated by a pickaxe-wielding colossus in miner’s garb, begin again.
The film is built with the same tools used by most slasher movies. Dewey-skinned young adults — some teens — are the paramount targets; the violence is florid and disturbing; the antagonist wears clothing as imprintive as the kind worn by such slasher icons as Michael Myers, from 1978’s Halloween, to Freddy Krueger, from 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. My Bloody Valentine seems conscious of its ugliness, though. It mourns for these helpless teens: what a waste these deaths are, it subtextually says. And despite otherwise depicting it in a manner that, inarguably, looks like something of a spectacle, the violence, akin to how it was flaunted in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, from 1974, is profligate and vile. Like Dementia 13, it still has most of the tiresome trappings of the slasher genre. But because it is more prone to implementing verisimilitude than sensationalism, it, in line with 13, makes for an abnormally adept potboiler. One doesn't expect slasher movies very often to be reinventive. At least movies like Dementia 13 and My Bloody Valentine have enough behind-the-camera personality to avoid totally going through the motions of the stalk-and-slash.
Dementia 13: C+
My Bloody Valentine: B