Winner of my 2020 ‘what did I just watch?’ award, this re-issue from the BFI is an obscurity that would leave even the most seasoned film-critic scratching his head. Arriving in time for Halloween, this is a horror movie, of a sort, but one with a history that makes it sound as dangerous as the video-tape in The Ring. The film-maker involved, John Parker, never made another film. It was banned for over a decade by New York censors who declared it ‘inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness.’ It was shown at only one cinema before disappearing. Most reference books contain no mention of it, and it’s almost like a ghost film that doesn’t exist. And yet you’ve almost certainly seen part of it, since a clip from the film, re-edited as Daughter of Horror, insidiously appears during Steve McQueen’s The Blob. Dare you risk your sanity by drinking from the poisoned chalice that is John Parker’s Dementia?
Producer Jack H Harris would later buy, re-edit the film and release it as Daughter of Horror, but the original version is the real draw here, and no, it’s nothing to do with the elderly. This is a film that even David Lynch might consider nightmare fuel, a POV view of a world of gloopy surrealism, a shattered mind pictured from the inside. The main character, described in the credits as The Gamine, is played by Adrienne Barrett, and the film ends and begins with her waking up in a seedy LA hotel room. She wanders outside, ignores a child sitting on the stairs, and dodges a dispute with her quarrelling neighbours. She allows herself to be mistaken for a prostitute and rides in a car with a rich man, listed as Rich Man in the credits and played by Bruno Ve Sota. But when they arrive at his apartment, the Gamine’s sanity seems to take leave of its moorings, and violence seems to break out. Or does it? A corpse, a necklace, a series of unsolved murders, a packed nightclub; is the Gamine the prey, or the predator?
Many of the popular films of 1953 are unwatchable by today’s standards; Dementia’s collection of shock tactics feel decidedly modern, and the film has remake potential. But even a remake would find it hard to summon the other-wordly feel of Parker’s film, with jolting tone changes and jarring edits that make you question what you’re watching. Did I mention that there’s no dialogue at all? There’s so much strange stuff going on that the absence of speech barely registers as unusual. And this isn’t a film that features violence to women; the sense of threat feels real throughout, but it’s not the usual slasher trope, rather more something more unique and sinister. Everything seems off in this world, from the newspaper seller to the cops; an utterly bizarre pair of early dream sequences establishes the violent ends of the Gamine’s parents, and the horror is more like that of a recurring nightmare from which the viewer cannot wake. And the ending packs a real punch.
The BFI clean-up offers an ideal platform for assessment, with an effective commentary by critic Kat Ellinger, the risible alternate cut that is Daughter of Horror, plus a wry potted explanation of the film’s history by Joe Dante. But even after Dementia has been parsed and nailed down, the meaning and the experience remain elusive. If you’re looking for something a little more intellectual than the usual jump scares this Halloween, John Parker’s Dementia is well worth a shot. The great comedy film-maker Preston Sturges has a unlikely quote on the front saying that the film ‘stirred my blood… purged my libido’, and he’s not wrong; this is a trip to be sure, and Dementia is one film that you won’t forget in a hurry, no matter how you try.
The BFI present Dementia in a new Blu-ray/DVD release from 19 October 2020 with simultaneous release on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
Thanks to the BFI for providing early access to this title.