John Parker, 1955
Starring: Adrienne Barrett, Bruno VeSota, Ben Roseman
Only known as the Gamin (meaning a street urchin), a young girl in a seedy hotel has disturbing visions, possibly nightmares. She heads out into the night and is startled by a dwarf handing out newspapers. The headline blares that a mysterious stabbing has occurred. She’s almost attacked by a drunken man, but is rescued by police offers who beat the man. Another man propositions her and convinces her to join a wealthy man riding in a limo, though she has flashbacks about an abusive childhood where her father killed her adulterous mother and then she stabbed her father to death. The wealthy man – presumably her client – gorges himself on food and ignores her advances, so she stabs him and pushes him out the window of her apartment. She has to cut off his hand to reclaim a necklace he ripped off of her, and afterwards goes on the run from police in a jazz club.
There is nothing quite like this blend of horror, noir, surrealism, and German Expressionism. It could loosely be described as an insane cross between Polanski’s Repulsion, Ed Wood’s films, and the early work of David Lynch. The latter director must have seen at some point in his early career. For years, not much was known about Dementia outside from its appearance in The Blob (1958), as the film moviegoers are watching when they are attacked by the titular creature. Dementia was released to very limited audiences two years after its creation, in a slightly recut version retitled Daughter of Horror. This version amazingly includes some added voice over narration from a young Ed McMahon (!!). While the narration could be seen as a bit cheesy, I actually love the voice over, which feels a bit like a Gothic-inspired tone poem – and think it adds to the film’s horror-camp atmosphere.
The narration/poem works particularly well because otherwise this is a film without dialogue or much audio in general. Screams and hysterical laughter, frantic jazz music, doors slamming, and gun shots make up some of the only non-score audio. The lengthy jazz scene adds to the film’s beatnik flavor, but undoubtedly one of the best things about Dementia is the phenomenal score from avant-garde composer George Antheil, which is accompanied by lyric-less vocals from Marni Nixon. Nixon later became famous as the often uncredited voice behind many female stars, in everything from Mary Poppins and An Affair to Remember to The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady. Antheil primarily worked on film and television scores (including the excellent film noir, In a Lonely Place), though he’s known for this great piece of avant-garde music, as well as for his collaborations with actress Hedy Lamarr. The two developed a telecommunications technique known as “spread spectrum,” initially intended to be a frequency-hopping style of communication for the military during WWII. It is essentially the foundation of modern Bluetooth. To learn more about this fascinating man, check out his autobiography.
Shot at least in part by Ed Wood’s regular cinematographer William C. Thompson, this film does bear something in common with Wood’s low budget, sometimes misguided works of love. Somewhat like wood’s films and later works of exploitation, Dementia certainly exhibits an exceptionally seedy side of life, one not typically associated with ‘50s cinema – murder, prostitution, hallucinations, infidelity, child abuse, etc. Instead of being horrified at her predicament, the Gamin seems to take some delight in murder and prostitution, inextricably entwining sex and violence, the repression of traumatic memories and the erotic urge. It reminded me of Lydia Lunch’s autobiography, Paradoxia, which coincidentally (I believe) shares common themes with Dementia’s loose plot.
The film’s portrait of the city as a terrifying place of madness, vice, and violence is another of its most compelling elements and sort of falls in with film noir. The thematic overlaps, as well as Dementia’s heavy reliance on German expressionist visuals, make this a loose candidate for film noir. Speaking of, keep your eyes peeled for a few of the famous L.A. exteriors, some of which can also be seen in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.