More often than not, a legendary filmmaker’s debut feature is rarely representative of their later work. Just look at David Fincher: following his tumultuous time on the Alien 3 set, few would’ve expected his career to be so littered with critical darlings. It’s a common trend, but that’s where Dementia 13 comes in: the debut film of Francis Ford Coppola, just under a decade before The Godfather took the world by storm. While it’s more of a slasher-based, giallo-inflected ride than Coppola’s other films, it’s a clear blueprint for the work he’d later do – and one of the earliest, most visceral horrors you’ll encounter.
The film follows the Haloran family, a group of Irish socialites who convene annual at Castle Haloran to commemorate the premature loss of their youngest member, Kathleen. She drowned at an early age, and Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) never quite seemed to recover. Cue the entrance of Louise (Luana Anders), an outsider of the family married to slovenly husband John (Peter Read), who takes his place at this year’s event following a boat-shaped mishap. While her initial intentions are to arrive and vie for a plce in Lady Haloran’s fruitful will, it soon becomes a battle survival – as the family are stalked by a mysterious killer wielding an axe.
Yes, if Dementia 13 sounds like it may appeal to slasher fans, you’re absolutely right. Decades before Jason, Freddy, and co. started tearing apart raucous teenagers at isolated holiday camps, Dementia 13 unpacks a mysterious killer in a much more concentrated environment. Coppola has never been a director renowned for his horror — Dracula notwithstanding —but he handles it very competently here. The shrill soundtrack drums up an atmosphere of lurking mistrust, and the constant fear that this killer could return as shockingly and brutally as they do elsewhere.
Yet more than a slasher, Dementia 13 combines elements of whodunnit as well, in a film that very often feels akin to Hitchcock classics like Psycho. You’re never quite sure which of the Haloran family is behind these killings, yet since it all takes place in such a refined gothic space, the manipulation and second-guessing between them all bubbles up palpably. The murky doctor (Patrick Magee) plants seeds of doubt around eldest son Richard (William Campbell), and youngest child Billy (a timid Bart Patton) seems unerringly haunted by his sister Kathleen’s death – but the screenplay from Coppola constantly keeps you guessing.
But there’s one performance that soars above and beyond all else in Dementia 13 – Luana Anders as Lousie. Her conniving, manipulative intentions feel like a black-and-white era Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, with a morbid internal monologue, and the secret sociopathic tendencies that lurk beneath her welcoming appearance. She’s far and away the best performer here, with the outsider’s perspective that lends very well to audiences attaching to her. As such, the film falters any time she disappears from the action. None of the other supporting cast, perhaps aside from Magee’s underwritten doctor, have quite the same magnetic screen presence.
That’s but a minor gripe in a film that confidently stamped Coppola as a director to watch. The Hitchcockian comparisons are undeniably hard to avoid, but the confidence with which he balances a plethora of characters with a genuinely intriguing mystery is the blueprint for the masterpieces he has gone on to helm. Despite a rough critical reception, Dementia 13 is consistently gripping, flies through its 70-minute runtime, and really stands out as a result.
Dementia 13 is on Blu-ray 15 November from Lionsgate UK, as part of the latest re-releases in the Vestron Collector’s Series. The film is remastered for Blu-Ray, and comes with a director’s commentary, introduction from Coppola, and a short prologue.