The first half of Dementia 13 is surprisingly good. From the first scene–pre-titles even–Coppola establishes some great angles to his composition. He keeps it up throughout with close-ups jump cutting to different close-ups; excellent photography from Charles Hannawalt makes it all work.
During that first half, the film is basically an old dark house picture, with conniving daughter-in-law Luana Anders trying to worm her way into her husband’s family fortune. Even though Anders is technically a villain, she’s the viewer’s way into the house–and Coppola is always up front with her. Everyone else is a suspect, not her.
Sadly, the second half refocuses on Patrick Magee as the annoying family doctor who decides to solve the mystery. Why is he solving the mystery? It’s unclear, maybe because Coppola just needed someone not staying in the scary castle to do it.
Magee’s awful too. Anders is great, however. Also quite good is Eithne Dunne as the family matriarch who Anders has to con. Eventually Dunne falls away too, with Coppola sharing Magee’s spotlight a little with Mary Mitchel as another daughter-in-law to be. Mitchel’s okay, but her character is thin.
I’ve forgotten there’s an axe murderer on the loose too. Coppola doesn’t do well with those scenes. He does all right with the tense, suspense sequences, but the violence? It doesn’t work.
Good music from Ronald Stein helps too.
Dementia 13 doesn’t deliver on Coppola’s promise; Magee’s too weak a protagonist.
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; director of photography, Charles Hannawalt; edited by Stuart O’Brien and Morton Tubor; music by Ronald Stein; produced by Roger Corman; released by American International Pictures.
Starring Luana Anders (Louise Haloran), William Campbell (Richard Haloran), Patrick Magee (Justin Caleb), Mary Mitchel (Kane), Eithne Dunne (Lady Haloran), Bart Patton (Billy Haloran), Peter Read (John Haloran), Karl Schanzer (Simon), Ron Perry (Arthur), Derry O’Donavan (Lillian) and Barbara Dowling (Kathleen).