Release Date(s)1955 (April 26, 2022)
Studio(s)Exploitation Pictures (Cohen Film Collection/Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
Dementia is a fever dream of a film that’s quite unlike any feature film made before or since. While it does owe a debt to surrealist classics like Un Chien Andalou, and also to experimental filmmakers like Maya Deren, Dementia was intended for mainstream theatres—though its path to get there was a circuitous one. A true independent production, it was the brainchild of John Parker, who based the concept on a dream that his secretary Adrienne Barrett had shared with him. Parker cast Barrett in the lead as The Gamin, a woman who wakes up from a nightmare in a seedy Los Angeles hotel. She leaves her room to go on a psychedelic trip through the dark corners of L.A., where she encounters a little person selling newspapers with headlines about mysterious stabbings, and ends up accompanying The Rich Man (Bruno VeSota) to nightclubs while pursued by the Law Enforcer (Ben Roseman), who happens to look like her father. When things spiral out of control into violence, she wakes up again in the hotel room, but her relief is short-lived, as she’s soon plunged back into the nightmare.
Dementia mixes surrealism with German Expressionism, and a generous dose of pop Freudian psychology as well. The symbolism isn’t subtle—when men make their moves on The Gamin, she ends up penetrating them instead. There’s no dialogue at all, and the limited sound effects were clearly post-synced. Most of the action is driven by the score written by George Antheil, with Shorty Rogers supplying the big band music. The only real voice that’s heard in the entire film belongs to none other than the legendary Marni Nixon, who provided the ethereal wailing that underpins the score (for once, she’s given full credit up front instead of working anonymously).
Despite the fact that Dementia was an extremely low-budget independent film, it was was shot on real Hollywood studio sets, and also on location in Venice, California, by Ed Wood’s cinematographer William C. Thompson. The editing by Joseph Gluck is creative, matching its tempos to The Gamin’s mental states. There’s even a pretty impressive matte painting in the opening and closing shots. Parker originally intended to make Dementia as a short subject, but when things turned out well, he expanded it into a feature film (albeit a brief one, at barely an hour in length). Bruno Ve Sota claimed that he directed some of the film himself, and it appears that much of it was improvised on set, but not only is Ve Sota not credited in the final film, neither was Parker. It does appear that there was indeed a credit at one point, but it seems to have been removed later. That’s where things get complicated.
Parker completed Dementia in 1953, and tried unsuccessfully to exhibit it in New York, but ran afoul of the censors. He submitted it ten times to the New York State Film Board, which kept demanding cuts, but Parker refused. He even solicited support from Preston Sturges, who provided the quote that opens the film, but when it was finally screened in 1955, the edits had been made. Yet even that wasn’t the end for Dementia. Two years later, producer Jack H. Harris released a further re-edited version with narration provided by an uncredited Ed McMahon. That version, titled Daughter of Horror, still didn’t find much of an audience, but it gained immortality when Harris used clips from it in his production of The Blob. It’s the film that’s playing in the theatre when the creature attacks, and yes, you’ve been listening to Ed McMahon the whole time, and probably didn’t know it. Even if you’ve never seen Dementia, it’s managed to work its way into your subconscious anyway. That’s entirely appropriate for a film based on a dream.
Cinematographer William C. Thompson shot Dementia on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.37:1. Cohen Film Collection’s Blu-ray utilizes a scan of the original negative, cleaned up and remastered. There’s some instability during the opening credits, possibly because of the poor quality opticals used, but there’s still occasional instability throughout the rest of the film as well. There are also light scratches and other minor bits of damage visible, but nothing too distracting. Fine detail is solid, especially during close-ups, and grain is generally even. Grayscale looks fine, as does contrast, though there’s a bit of crush to the blacks—those blacks are deep, but possibly a little too much so.
Audio is offered in 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. There’s a bit of background noise audible, as well as some crackling, so it sounds like this was derived from the optical tracks. Since there’s no dialogue, and even the sound effects are limited, the music provides the bulk of the audio for the entire film. And yes, there really are SDH subtitles on the disc, but they don’t amount to very much!
The following extras are included:
- Restoration Demonstration (HD – 3:13)
- Daughter of Horror (HD – 55:15)
- Restoration Trailer (HD – 1:15)
- Original Trailer (SD – 1:00)
The Restoration Demonstration shows split frame and side-by-side clips from the film, comparing the raw scans to the final restoration work. It demonstrates the improvements with the stability, damage, and contrast.
Daughter of Horror is the re-edited Jack H. Harris version of the film. Sourced from a 35 mm print, it’s in much rougher shape than Dementia, with severe scratches and heavy damage throughout. The instability is worse, and there are also some missing frames and jump cuts. Despite those issues, it’s still nice to have this version as an extra. Like Blade Runner, Dementia plays better without the narration, but this is still a doozy of a narration, and it deserves to be listened to at least once:
“Yes, I am here. The demon that possesses your soul. Wait a bit. I have so much to show you. So much that you are afraid to see. Come, let me take you by the arm and show you the bed of evil you sprang from. Let me take you back to when you were a little girl. Let me show you—your father. Let me show you—your mother. Marked! Marked forever, daughter of horror.”
The elephant in the room, however, is that while Daughter of Horror is an altered version of Dementia, the version of the latter included on this Blu-ray isn’t the uncut one. Instead, it’s the edited version, and it’s missing over a minute of footage. While a few of the cuts don’t adversely affect the film, there’s a crucial shot missing of one character holding up the bloody stump of his arm. While the omission doesn’t ruin the film, it’s still disappointing. Kino’s previous DVD release included the missing material, so it may be that the negative itself was cut, but their earlier version used a different source such as an interpositive or a print. Cohen still could have created a hybrid version using those elements to supply the censored footage, but that didn’t happen.
The Region B Blu-ray release from the BFI also contains the cut version, so there currently aren’t any options to see the complete version in HD. Their release includes more extras: a commentary by Kat Ellinger, a Joe Dante Trailers from Hell, and the 1958 short film Alone with the Monsters. While it would have been nice if some of those extras could have been ported over to this Kino Lorber/Cohen release, Daughter of Horror is of course the most important extra of all, and that’s included here. Missing footage or not, Dementia looks surprisingly good in high definition, and it deserves the wider audience that a Region-Free release can give it, so Kino gets the nod for that fact alone.
- Stephen Bjork