Dementia (1955) ***
Director: John Parker
There is no shortage of 1950s and 1960s films whose creators were so incompetent that they could not even manage to record the dialogue of their actors, and consequently have to string together their films with the help of omnipresent voice over narration. Red Zone Cuba (1966), The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), and The Creeping Terror (1964) are only the best-known and most “celebrated” instances of this phenomenon. However, nearly every film I’ve seen from this era at least makes some attempt at recording dialogue, even if it is only in the form of an additional narrator track recorded some months after shooting for the film has wrapped. A silent movie from the 1950s and 1960s was almost unheard of; indeed I had heard of none whatsoever until I encountered today’s film. The reason for the rarity of silent movies should be obvious: By the middle of the century nobody was paying to see them anymore. The drive-ins that screened the above-mentioned “near-silent” films (along with a great deal of low-budget independent films from the era) needed the voice over narration so you could tell what was going on onscreen in-between the heavy petting that was going on inside your car. To follow a silent, like Dementia, you’d actually have to watch the screen the entire time; clearly this was a film that demanded too much from its audience, which explains its relative obscurity today. It also explains why the film is better known today as Daughter of Horror, where it comes complete with a ludicrously cheesy voiceover narration. You might recognize that version of the film from The Blob (1958) where it plays in the movie theater just as the titular alien monster is about to strike.The film unfolds in a seedy, rundown urban center, the exact name and geographic location of which are never divulged. The streets of Venice California provide the backdrop, just as they would provide the same backdrop for Touch of Evil (1958) a few years later. Those familiar with the more famous film should have a good impression of just what manner of cityscape we’re dealing with here. It’s all shadowy, garbage-strewn streets occasionally broken up with the garish glow of a neon sign. Finding a more hopeless depiction of urban decay on film would be difficult until the 1970s, when the dissolution of America’s major cities began to outpace the imagination of filmmakers. The setting is perhaps the film’s greatest asset, and first (and only) time director John Parker knows it. He uses this squalid setting as a jumping-off point from which he builds a nightmarish world that only faintly resembles our own.
The story, at least what there is of it, follows a woman living in this bleak urban landscape. The credits identify her only as “The Gamine” a somewhat archaic term for a mischievous boyish waif. Our heroin will do precious little that could be termed mischievous (murderous perhaps, psychotic definitely, but certainly not mischievous) throughout the film, but she does sport a short haircut and small frame that definitely takes care of the boyish waif aspect. Just who she is, or how she came to live in this proto 42nd street tenement building where she awakens at the start of the film from a fitful sleep, is murky at best. Later in the film, a dream sequence shows that her father was an abusive drunk, who murdered her mother when he discovered that she was having an affair. The Gamine, in turn, then murdered her father to avenge her mother. It’s all very gloomy and has the ring of Greek tragedy to it but still, I’m disinclined to take her dreams as literal truth given how surreal the supposedly “waking” sequences are. Finding the line between reality and fantasy in this movie is such a tricky business that it’s safe to conclude that the boundary is of little importance. Whatever it was that happened with The Gamine’s family though, we can be confident that it was pretty goddamn far from the Cleavers or the Nelsons.
Upon awakening the Gamine checks her dresser drawer to make sure the wicked-looking switchblade is still where she left it. She then heads out for the night, pausing on the stairwell to observe a man being hauled off by the cops for what looks like a domestic disturbance call. The Gamine heads out onto the streets where she buys a newspaper from a midget and laughs it up about the latest stabbing mentioned in the banner headline. After that, she is accosted by a drunken hobo, who insists that she have a sip of his booze. At this point she is rescued by a police officer, and looks on with gleeful laughter as the cop bludgeons the bum into submission with his nightstick. After that a pimp recruits the Gamine to go out on a date with some a corpulent and immensely rich slob. Despite having paid to take the Gamine out on a date, the rich man seems far more interested in eyeing go-go dancers and gorging himself on fried chicken. The Gamine doesn’t particular care to play second fiddle to a bucket of KFC though, so she stabs the fat bastard and throws him out the window of his penthouse apartment building. It’s hardly the most successful first date.
From there the film only gets progressively odder. The rich man snared the Gamine’s necklace during their tussle, so naturally she has to retrieve from the dead man’s hands. Only problem is that prying something from someone’s cold dead hands is considerably more difficult than Charlton Heston would have you believe. In order to pry the necklace loose, the Gamine must first chop off the man’s hand, all the while shadowy figures surround the body, not reacting in the slightest to The Gamine’s mutilation. The same police officer that earlier saved her from the drunk, now chases after her; his face is distorted into a horrific smile. She takes shelter in a jazz club, where for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom she is welcomed as a performer. It’s all going rather swimmingly, until the cop and the rich man appear in the window, the latter waving his mutilated stump around in a surprisingly cheerful manner.
Dementia calls out to be analyzed from the perspective of gender, but a close examination of the film reveals a subtext that would probably be considered reactionary were it present in a modern day film. There certainly is quite a bit of marital abuse going on (particularly in the first half of the film). Yet, while Dementia casts individual husbands as loathsome, it also shows one such loathsome man being hauled off by the police in a timely fashion. When the drunken hobo harasses the Gamine, a policeman kindly rescues her and then administers a thrashing to the bum that he won’t soon forget. This is plainly a world, which while containing criminal elements, is not lawless. It’s hardly the patriarchy of feminist imagination where all manner of abuses are covered up in the name of an elitist brotherhood. Indeed, women seem to be especially protected by the authorities. It gets even further from modern feminist thinking when the Gamine goes out on her date with the rich slob. At the climax of their outing, the Gamine is plainly trying to get the rich prick’s attention only to be miffed when he finds the contents of his chicken dinner to be considerably more captivating. Neglect, rather than harassment here is the chief complaint; certainly a far cry from the modern women’s movement. That’s not to say that Dementia was not a feminist film when it was released, only that the movement has veered off in such a wildly divergent direction that it no longer makes sense in such a contact. The Overton window can be a real bitch sometimes.
Like the surrealist silent films of the 1920s, Dementia if more concerned with creating images than with telling a story. This is only to be expected; after all, while dreams do sometimes tell stories they often don’t make any sense once we wake up. On this front the film is unquestionably successful. We are bombarded by powerful images of figures peering in through a basement window, half shrouded in mist; shadowy men and women looming over a corpse, their faces hidden in darkness and their bodies standing rigid and still and mannequins; decrepit suburban furniture lying out of place in the middle of a forest; a cop with a face like a grinning death mask leers at our protagonist from across a darkened, soot stained street. Indeed, from the beautiful shot composition alone, I find myself disappointed that John Parker did not make any more films after this. Sadly, directing one of the weirdest movies ever given a theatrical release worked out considerably less well for him than it did for David Lynch with Eraserhead (1977).
Full confession: I am decidedly not in Dementia’s target audience. For the most part I gravitate towards pulpy entertainment: Stories that either depend on a copious helping of action, a riveting plotline, or a cast of interesting characters to hold my attention. While I can and do enjoy a heady, surreal film on occasion they aren’t a staple of my cinematic diet. Indeed, I often find the more aggressively avant-garde films tiresome; when you throw out story and characters in favor of pure visuals aren’t you making the same mistake as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Clash of the Titans (2010)? Fortunately, Dementia steers clear of most of the worst excesses of the art house. Part of this can only be because, Parker was a first-time filmmaker, and consequently did not have the hubris or funding to make a completely unwatchable boondoggle. There are characters, though they are left as intentionally vague impressions, likewise there is a story it’s just not following the rules of realism that we’re accustomed to. All and all though Dementia gets by more of novelty than anything else. There are precious few American post-war surrealist horror films out there, and one can only watch Carnival of Souls (1962) so many times before you get sick of all the organ music.