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‘Dementia’ offers a plethora of strange visuals, sometimes at the cost of cohesion

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Dementia (aka Daughter of Horror)

Written by John Parker

Directed by John Parker

U.S.A., 1955

Dementia is certainly among the odder films frequently lumped into the category of film noir. For one, it mingles between drastically different genres, some of which are rarely associated with noir. What’s more, its storytelling style is avant-garde to put it mildly. Even its production history lies in the shadows, with the names of the screenwriters involved unclear till this day, with Bruno Vesota, who also plays a role in the film, claiming to have partaken in the writing process years after the movie’s release. To top it off, there are two versions of the finished product in existence, one of which adds an element that completely changes the viewing experience. In a nutshell, Dementia is a strange bird of a film, but uniqueness does not always equate high quality.

A young woman (Adrienne Barrett) awakens from a nightmare whilst staying at a dingy hotel. Panicked, distraught, she gets out of bed in the middle of the night, puts on some clothes and leaves for a walk, thus beginning a wild, schizophrenic misadventure around town involving hallucinations, murder, a haunting past and a rotund, wealthy man (Bruno Vesota) that apparently wants to pay the woman for sex.

There really is not much more information one can provide in a plot synopsis for Dementia that what can be found in the above paragraph. To say nothing of the fact that the film is incredibly short, clocking in at just under an hour long, director John Parker, serving as screenwriter and producer, plunges viewers into a horrifyingly kaleidoscopic sequence of unfortunate events that at times put the woman in peril while other times reveals events from her past that help explain her topsy-turvy state of mind. One word that comes to mind to describe the picture is ‘experimental’. It looks like a noir and sometimes feels like a noir, yet regularly delves into visuals that few of the director’s contemporaries ever dared to. People often refer to the ‘movie watching experience’, and rarely does such an expression feel more apt than in the case of director John Parker’s strange vision. It serves as a sensorial experience in which the sights and sounds are heightened greatly, far outweighing the important of dialogue or traditional narrative. Director Parker aims for a deep, visceral film via a lot of bells and whistles, only that said bells and whistles suggest dread and doom rather than more common thrills, making Dementia as idiosyncratic as film noir gets.

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Depending on what version of the film one gets their hands on, there may or may not be any dialogue whatsoever. The other version includes voice over that supposedly represents a voice in the woman’s head, constantly taunting her, either by embellishing the dark mood enveloping the world around her in order to frighten, or by reminiscing about a crime she seems to have committed not so long ago and probably explains why is looks to be on the run from the police. This voice over work is the movie’s weakest element, nearly crippling the endeavour in the process. The intonation is outlandish and forceful, exaggerating the sense of horror to such a degree that it ultimately becomes comical. Not helping matters is the paint by the numbers dialogue the actor (Ed McMahon) in question delivers. It lacks imagination or depth, sounding like mundane mutterings of dreams and dread that could have been written in a matter of minutes before the cameras rolled.

Lest it be overlooked, there is also the matter of the film’s score from composer George Antheil, a perfect case of a hit-or-miss element that sometimes feels right at place while in other scenes feels irritatingly intrusive and redundant. That said, one clever aspect to the score, despite its restriction to the same few notes played over again endlessly, are its diegetic and non-diegetic platforms of communication. Earlier in the picture the haunting notes (before they begin to grow just a bit tiresome) are built into the soundtrack via non-diegetic means, performed by an orchestra and a solo, howling female voice. Later on, as when the female protagonist enters a nightclub, the same tune is played, but this time by the actual band providing live music to the audience in attendance.

hqdefaultIn fairness, despite its flaws, Dementia’s hodgepodge collection eerie imagery is, at times, striking, making brilliant use of deep focus photography. Director Parker and his crew occasionally create sublimely phantasmagorical visual cues that highlight the woman’s trepidatious psychological state. She evidently is not quite right in the head, shifting from frightened damsel in distress to maniacal femme fatale the next. Once again, the filmmakers’ goal is clearly to tell a story through sound and images in the purest form possible rather than be reliant on intricate plot details or dialogue exchanges. Certain moments do indeed shock and impress, confidently compounding the moribund mood that dominates the proceedings. Most of it is reasonably effective, although keeping track of the protagonist’s intentions and emotional status is easier said than done. The film strongly suggests that she is suffering from the titular handicap, therefore rendering her an enigma of sorts. It makes for a viewing that is both interesting and frustrating. On the one hand the choice is quite bold, demonstrating that director Parker truly desired to make the film his own, without paying heed to the mainstream storytelling venues of the era. On the flip side, even by the movie’s conclusion, which itself is enigmatic, there is no guarantee that the viewer will have a better grasp of what her character is than they had at the start. Filmmakers should never feel the need to spell everything out for audiences, but this is one of those instances in which a bit more pertinent information, even if only suggested, would have been beneficial.

Dementia marches at the beat of its own drum, a commendable attitude to partake in in the realm of filmmaking, which has, since its inception, had to constantly straddle the line between commercial product producing and artistic expression. Does everything in the film run like clockwork? No, especially depending on what version one sees (avoiding the version that includes voice over narration is a wise choice). As a bit of experimental cinema, film lovers could do a lot worse however. While not as demented as the title suggests, it work well enough as a curiosity from a bygone era.

-Edgar Chaput

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