Fans of director Francis Ford Coppola have a new reason to rejoice. As part of their excellent Vestron Video Collector's Series, Lionsgate is releasing a digitally restored director's cut of his debut film, 1963's Dementia 13. Interestingly, this cut is shorter than the theatrical release version. That's because producer Roger Corman famously forced Coppola to include footage he didn't shoot and didn't approve of, including a bizarre prologue. Now all that material is gone, and the film can be seen exactly as its maker intended.
This twisted tale begins with Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) abruptly becoming a widow when her husband has a heart attack while they're in a rowboat. She dumps the body overboard, knowing she won't have access to his inheritance if his family knows he's dead. She then sets out for Ireland, where that family – under the watchful eyes of Lady Haloran (Ethne Dunn) – holds an annual memorial for her husband's drowned sister, Kathleen. Louise, who tells everyone her husband is merely away on business, hatches a plan to make Lady Haloran think Kathleen is trying to communicate with her from beyond the grave. Things get extremely lurid from there.
Running a tight 68 minutes, Dementia 13 isn't a particularly deep film, but it definitely shows the promise Coppola would go on to fulfill. An eerie tone permeates every scene, and there are several gruesome sequences that deliver a shock. Whereas a lot of horror movies of the era had a cheap, tossed-off feel (because many of them were made to be the bottom half of a drive-in double feature), Coppola takes great care to establish mood and bring a sense of artistry to the picture. This is absolutely a cut above the rest. The story's willingness to go to dark places is another benefit.
One of the really telling things is that, despite it being his first film, Coppola shows a lot of confidence. He knows precisely what kind of atmosphere he wants to create, and his shots have been carefully composed. Those qualities would, of course, be honed over the years, leading to some of his later masterworks. Part of the fun of watching Dementia 13 now is seeing the genesis of what would establish the director as an A-list talent in the years ahead.
The new restoration is gorgeous, emphasizing the starkness of the black-and-white photography. Some nice bonus features are present to compliment the main feature. There's a one-minute introduction from Coppola, who explains why the director's cut is important to him. He also provides a commentary track that is top quality. Sometimes filmmakers just ramble in their commentaries; Coppola has clearly thought out what he wants to say. Finally, the 6-minute prologue that was added without his consent is included as a stand-alone extra. It features a "psychiatrist" administering a 13-question test to the viewer, in order to see whether they're mentally fit to handle Dementia 13. Although goofy fun on its own, it has no bearing on the story itself, so one can easily see why Coppola opposed its inclusion.
The Dementia 13 Director's Cut will make a fine addition to the Blu-ray collection of any horror buff or fan of Francis Ford Coppola. Being able to see this film as the director originally envisioned it is a genuine treat.
Dementia 13 (Director's Cut) is unrated but contains lurid violence. The running time is 1 hour and 8 minutes.