Banned by the New York State Film Board when it was first submitted for release in 1953, for what was seen as a sensational portrayal of female violence, John Parker’s Dementia is a film the horror market wasn’t entirely ready for, even after its eventual release in 1955.
Regularly cited as one of the first Freudian American horror films, one with possible arthouse pretensions, Parker’s picture sits in something of a liminal space, being neither remotely commercial nor a straight-up art film. Instead it’s truly one of a kind, a bizarre hybrid, even in its recut form under the title of Daughter of Horror. This version took all of the elements from Parker’s original picture, reframing them with a voiceover narration by Ed McMahon, when producer Jack H. Harris took over distributing the project in 1957.
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For many years Dementia was largely remembered for its cameo appearance in Harris’s production of The Blob (1958), being all but forgotten in other quarters, even by some of the most ardent horror fans. Yet, the film’s obscurity is understandable given that it was difficult to see for many years. Even on its initial theatrical release there was little in the way of a press campaign and virtually no screenings to speak of. This said, the film does come with a pretty effusive testimonial printed on its first frames, by Hollywood legend Preston Sturges no less.
Audiences have long since struggled with the concept of female violence for the sake of violence. Instead, there is always an expectation that if women are to be violent they should at least be excused by either mental incapacity or some other explanation, like brainwashing or revenge. Dementia in its original form, while employing some Freudian notes, does little to explain or excuse the main protagonist named simply The Gamine. The whys and wherefores are rendered nebulous and ambiguous by the film’s silent, expressionist, freeform presentation, which is devoid of dialogue. This led to much head-scratching from reviewers and audiences who were not accustomed to non-linear genre films. Others were simply shocked by the film’s confrontational approach to violence.
The project was originally conceived as a short film. Little is known about director Parker. Dementia represents his one and only credit as a director. However, as Paul Parla and Charles P. Mitchell reveal in their article on the film for Scary Monsters issue 25 (the only primary piece of research ever published on the film to date), the original idea came from a dream Parker’s secretary Adrienne Barrett had. Barrett would then go on to star in the film as The Gamine, despite having what appears to be little in the way of acting experience.
Co-star Bruno Ve Sota was apparently so impressed with Parker’s vision that he helped to expand the initial seed into a feature-length picture, taking on duties not only as an actor but producer too (alongside Ben Roseman, who also appears in the film).
The plot is so fascinating and often subversive that it lends itself to feminist readings, making it remarkable for its time and place. Set to a dreamy avant-garde score by George Antheil, complete with lyricless singing by Marni Nixon, the film’s dream-within-a-dream framework portrays The Gambine lost in a nightmarish cityscape, after dark – mainly shot on location in Los Angeles’ Skid Row – where she’s initially hounded then pursued by anonymous men. Newspaper reports, in what seems like a hat tip to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926), ramp up the tension. The lurid headlines highlight there is a killer on the loose in the city and this is no place for a woman to be wandering around, alone.
The film’s black-and-white style, complete with bold chiaroscuro lighting, also places Dementia with at least one toe in the film noir canon, although this is where Parker ceases to follow convention. What he offers up instead is something fuelled purely by psychosexual dream logic. And while some writers, such as John Parris Springer, have since framed the film as a comment on violence towards women, readings are potentially far-reaching.
Dementia also seems to explore psychological concepts such as the cycle of violence – we are introduced to the notion that The Gamine witnessed her mother murdered at the hands of a jealous father. Yet an alternative reading, favoured by this writer, is that the film is a reaction to the objectification of women in society in general. The Gamine, while presented as a typical, persecuted gothic heroine in early scenes, soon morphs into something far more sinister and aggressive. Her violence does not seem to be a response to immediate threat but more an act provoked by her frustration at being rendered invisible – unless perceived as a sexual object – by the men that surround her.
If we consider the film as an American horror, which during the classic years were overwhelmingly commercial and somewhat formulaic in nature, largely produced for the burgeoning drive-in market, Parker’s bold, singular vision is something worth celebrating. Alongside films such as Carnival of Souls (1962), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and Messiah of Evil (1973), it’s a rare breed that fits within a very small canon of wildly unconventional independents.