282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

“Do you know what madness is, or how it strikes? Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind? Do you know that in the world of the insane you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction? A truth… that will shock you!”–Opening narration from Daughter of Horror

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Parker

FEATURING: Adrienne Barret, Bruno VeSota, Ed MacMahon (voice in Daughter of Horror cut)

PLOT: A nameless woman awakens from a nightmare and makes her way out onto the city streets. She meets a wealthy man and agrees to go with him, and imagines a bloody family drama enacted in graveyard while riding in his limousine. Later, she stabs the man and throws his body off his penthouse balcony; she is then pursued by a cop with the face of her father, who chases her into a jazz club.

Still from Dementia (Daughter of Horror) (1955)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film contains no dialogue, although it’s not technically a silent film as some sound effects can be heard.
  • Director John Parker has only Dementia and one short film (a dry run for this feature) in his filmography. We know little about him except that his parents were in the film distribution business.
  • Star Adrienne Barrett was Parker’s secretary, and the film was inspired by a nightmare she related to Parker.
  • Co-star and associate producer Bruno VeSota is perhaps better known for his work as a character actor in numerous pictures, including a memorable turn as a cuckolded husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches. VeSota later claimed to have co-written and co-directed the film (no director is listed in the credits).
  • Cinematographer William C. Thompson also lensed Maniac (1934) and Glen or Glenda? (1953), making him the rare craftsman to serve on three separate Certified Weird movies (all for different directors).
  • Dwarf (Freaks) plays the uncredited “newsboy.”
  • The score was written by one-time bad boy composer George Antheil, whose career had plummeted into film and TV scoring after having once been the toast of Paris’ avant-garde with “Ballet Mechanique” (1924).
  • Dementia was submitted to the New York Censor’s board in 1953, and refused a certificate (they called it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”—which they didn’t mean as praise). It was approved in 1955 after cuts. (Reportedly they requested removal of shots of the severed hand). The film was banned in Britain until 1970 (!)
  • After failing to find success in its original dialogue-free form, Dementia was re-released in 1957 with narration (from future late night talk show sidekick Ed McMahon) and retitled Daughter of Horror.
  • Daughter of Horror is the movie teenagers are watching in the theater when the monster strikes in The Blob.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our protagonist (the “Gamin”) surrounded by faceless onlookers, who silently and motionlessly stare at her victim’s corpse. (Daughter of Horror‘s narrator unhelpfully informs us that these unearthly figurants are “the ghouls of insanity”).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Precognitive headline; graveyard memories; throw on a dress

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A skid row nightmare, Dementia dips into post-WWII repression and exposes the underbelly of the American night. It’s a boozy odyssey through a netherworld of newsboys, flower peddlers, pimps, murderers, and hot jazz, with our heroine pursued by cops and faceless demons. It’s noirish, expressionist, and nearly silent, except when Ed MacMahon interrupts the proceedings with pulpy purple prose. Perhaps it was not quite “the strangest motion picture ever offered for distribution,” as Variety famously claimed, but, warts and all, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. It was too much naked id for its time, taking the spirit of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and channeling it into a guilt-drenched B-movie dream.


Original trailer for Daughter of Horror

COMMENTS: The first thing the Gamin sees when she wakes from her nightmares and leaves her apartment on an unspoken errand—one for which she needs a switchblade—is an unattended toddler sitting on the apartment steps. On her way out into the night, she gingerly avoids a crime scene: a battered woman, a surly man, a nosy neighbor. While the good people of L.A. sleep, she encounters lecherous drunks, abusive cops, seedy procurers, lecherous millionaires, and hedonistic nightclubs. Plot points hint at child abuse and prostitution. The night pulses with forbidden pleasures. Our protagonist is alone, a grown-up orphan in the dark, lost in her own purgatory. This is Jack Kerouac’s 1950s, Charles Bukowski’s 1950s. “Happy Days” these ain’t.

Dementia is most noted for its experimental style: it’s a near silent film. There’s no dialogue (except for the narrator in Daughter of Horror), although you will very occasionally hear diegetic sounds like a bottle breaking or the Gamin’s mocking laughter. Unlike silent films, there are no intertitles to describe what’s happening; it’s pure visual storytelling. Although it’s an overused term, this story does follow the logic of a dream, driven by the lead character’s guilt. The visuals are inspired by film noir; Dementia exists only at night.The Gamin walks along a deserted city street, preceded and dwarfed by her own shadow, cast by streetlamps against a blank wall. But the silence speaks even louder than the visuals, though of course, it’s not really silence, just the impression of silence. The soundtrack is a constant. Aside from a swinging number by Shorty Rogers and his band at the after-hours speakeasy, the score is supplied by George Antheil, with Marni Nixon singing along wordlessly. (Antheil borrowed the idea for his main theme from Gustav Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic“). The effect is genuinely eerie and nerve-chilling. It’s a wonderful, full-fledged silent film score, sadly unavailable on its own.

Of course, most people will not get the full effect of the silent-film, due to Ed MacMahon’s intrusive and unwelcome narration appended to the commonly available Daughter of Horror print. This commentary assumes the viewer is an idiot, describing the action on the film in explicit detail while simultaneously forcing its own interpretations onto the visions. The interpolations are infrequent, at least. Some people find Daughter‘s overheated prose, which might have been written by in a sober moment, enjoyable. Certainly, lines like “the pulse of the neon light like a hammer at your brain: tormenting you, haunting you, forcing you to think, forcing you to remember your guilt, your horror; forcing you to go back, back, back, into the terror that you’re trying to forget,” and “yes, you are safe… in another hallucination of your crazed mind!,” spoken by a disembodied voice who identifies himself as “the demon who possesses your soul,” add a pulpy dimension to the story. Arguably, the exploitative commentary clashes enough with the artier mood of the original that it adds an additional layer of weirdness. Your preference for the unadorned Dementia or the annotated Daughter of Horror may depend on whether you’re seeking an intense, dreamlike experience, or a campier one that exposes and amplifies the movie’s Freud 101 pretensions.

Much of Dementia is what might fondly be described as “dime store surrealism.” The refugees of the night don’t act like people do in the daytime world. The newsboy smilingly traces the headline “MYSTERIOUS STABBING” as he hands the late-night edition to the Gamin. The millionaire takes the lady to his penthouse, then serenades her on piano, then ignores her while he wolfs down a fried chicken dinner. His butler seems unconcerned by his employers sudden disappearance. A man pulls the Gamin out of an alley and into the backroom of the jazz bar as she flees the police, then literally throws a party dress on her. A lot of time is spent surveying the denizens of the jazz club; they dance, make out at tables, morose drunks catch the Gamin’s eye. The drummer looks like he’s constantly stifling a yawn (this was Shorty Rogers’ real jazz band, so it’s possible they were all high during the shoot). The hot tunes send one hoofer into an out-of-his-head trance, slapping his palms on the stairs, ignoring his lady friend. The patrons are all subtly, and some not so subtly, depraved. Everyone has an angle. They are her people, creatures of darkness, abandoned to their private impulses.  We identify with these libertine hipsters, rather than the forces of law and order. At the nightclub, the Gamin is happy, for the only time in Dementia.  At least, until one of the patrons sells her out to the coppers. There’s no honor or mercy in this world, even among the thieves of the night.

Dementia is frequently compared to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (for its silent aesthetics  and subjective depiction of insanity), Carnival of Souls (in the way atmosphere triumphs over budget), and Repulsion (due to its hallucinating, sexually vulnerable female protagonist). In some ways the movie it most reminds me of, however, is Night of the Hunter, made in the same year of 1955. Both movies are artistic triumphs and critical/box office flops. In both cases, the director, stung by the audience’s hostility, never made another film. True, Harry Powell is a maximized antihero full of blustery speechifying, while the Gamin is minimal, silent and withdrawn. Hunter is far more polished; Stanley Cortez’s camera is able to go places (like underwater) where William C. Thompson can’t afford to follow. And Hunter chickens out a little with a happy ending that Dementia explicitly rejects. But the impulse of both is to pass beyond the curtain of shadow only suggested in film noir. Both films peer into the darkest corners of human depravity, into hard worlds for little things. Audiences stayed away in both in droves, spending their dollars instead on the now-forgotten 1955 top grosser Cinerama Holiday, or sunshiny musical spectacles like Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls. Pushing as far as contemporary censors would allow, John Parker and Charles Laughton depicted worlds of abuse, hypocrisy, and murder, shadowy backwoods and back alleys where insanity and evil rendezvoused in the moonlight. Only ten years removed from the end of WWII, America was in denial, not yet ready to face the darkness again. With the distance of time, we can now  appreciate these artists’ bravery in confronting evil head on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strangest film ever offered for theatrical release.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“One of the most deliberately weird exercises in the history of horror cinema… an eerie, groundbreaking landmark among modern horror movies.”–Cavett Binion, All Movie Guide

“It’s not by Ed Wood, but John Parker’s 1955 surrealist grade Z nightmare, DEMENTIA (AKA DAUGHTER OF HORROR), is full of poverty row trimmings, with Wood’s same weird love for all the seedier elements of late 1950s Hollywood. In fact if Ed was a closeted lesbian schizophrenic beatnik prostitute, this would be his GLEN OR GLENDA (presuming too the whole film was that weird devil dream sequence).”–Erich Kursten, Acidemic

IMDB LINK: Dementia (1955)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dementia (AKA Daughter of Horror) (1955) (Overview) – Turner Classic Movies’ page on the film features a very valuable background essay from David Kalat

Dementia – A long synopsis and even more background information from American Film Institute’s Dementia page

Savant Review: Dementia/Daughter of Horror – Glenn Erickson’s review, reprinted from DVD Savant, is noteworthy for transcribing the entire narration (see footnotes)

DVD INFO: Although it’s in the public domain and therefore has multiple releases, the edition to own is Kino’s dual Dementia/Daughter of Horror disc (buy). The reason? It’s the only available release with a standalone copy of Dementia, without the seedy narration (never fear, that version is available too). It also has the featurette “Dementia: A Case Study,” one of the most complete sources of information on the shadowy history of this obscurity. The bad news? It’s out of print (boo!) and you’ll probably have to pay twice the normal price for a copy.

Kino tracked down an original negative of Dementia, but public domain sources stick to multi-generation copies of Daughter of Horror, sometimes duped from VHS tapes. Your best bet (it’s free, at least) is to watch the upload from the Internet Archive (visit the download page here, or simply watch the embed below).

(This movie was nominated for review by “David Ross,” who described it as “psycho-noir. Some incredibly good B/W work throughout.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)”

  1. Just a note – perhaps in addition to David Ross, I recommended this movie to you some time ago and it was shortly after I did so that it was put on the list. I’ve been following its upward progress for what seems like a year now! I know this seems trivial but hey, it’s all I got! :) Thanks!

  2. One of my favorite “Three degrees” connections concerns Shorty Rogers ( he and his band perform the ‘Wig Alley’ number at the jazz nightclub) — and his contribution to one of my favorite Looney Tunes cartoons, The Three Little Bops (in which, the three pigs are members of a jazz combo and the the Big Bad Wolf wants in. He tries to add his trumpet into the mix, with disastrous results. The problem? He stinks! He’s not hip enough for the ultra-cool lounge pigs, so he uses his instrument to blow down their first venue (straw nightclub), then the next (wood nightclub), before a final futile attempt to join the band at their latest gig in the brick nightclub. Does he finally get in? Well, only after unsuccessfully trying to use TNT to blow the place up. It’s only upon his descent to Hell that he becomes a worthy trumpeter, as the pigs realize, “You gotta get hot, to play real cool.” ).

    Shorty Rogers has had lots of other credits, but these were two of my favorites.

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